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Tech Super Bowl Ads: Groupon Flops, but It's Not the Only Bomb

When deal-of-the-day marketer Groupon's Super Bowl ad hit the air, it was supposed to be a parody of a celebrity public service announcement for a noble cause that actually talked about supporting your own cause by saving money. The company even hired Academy Award-winning actor Timothy Hutton as the spokesperson, who segues from the people of Tibet being in trouble and their culture in jeopardy to, "But they still whip up an amazing fish curry."

The gag flopped like a dying cod on the deck of a fishing boat. Shades of that Kenneth Cole tweet trying to use the Egyptian uprising as a sales hook. Unfortunately, too many tech companies have too much money and too little marketing savvy. So when things go wrong in ad campaigns, they blow up spectacularly. And while some technology companies did some clever work, a few blew their expensive spots.

Jonathan Green, a colleague of mine, wrote the book Murder in the High Himalaya, which covered the human rights crisis in Tibet as seen through a murder of a young Tibetan trying to escape the country. He's been in the country multiple times. Here's how he described the Groupon ad:

I thought I hallucinated it. Tibet right now is under martial law. You can get 15 years in prison just for sending an email to people in the west about what is going on politically. Plus, it's the highest country in the world and completely land-locked. They don't eat fish curry in Tibet.
Groupon's case was foolish in number of ways. The company wrote that "in spite of how much we'd grown, a ton of people still hadn't heard of Groupon." So management knew it would deal with people new to the company. What did it do? Make itself appear like an organization that wanted to make a buck on a global tragedy. Any time you find yourself explaining your background in philanthropy on a web site, your ad campaign is over before it started. Plus, the company just spent $3 million, and however much it took to produce the commercial and hire Hutton, to make itself look like an insensitive corporate ass.

It was the worst example of misspent high tech ad dollars during the Super Bowl, though not the only one. Ever since Apple (AAPL) jumpstarted its Mac business with the famous 1984 ad, technology businesses have tried to invest in the same mojo. Unfortunately, what sometimes works so well often doesn't.

The Motorola Mobility (MMI) ad for the Xoom tablet tried to evoke the 1984 theme, with multitudes in hooded outfits. The only "normal" person, taken with one of the drones, created a simple animation, superimposed an image of flowers, and got her to take the first step into individuality. Here's a hint: If you want to evoke one of the icon ads of the last 50 years, do it well and creatively. (And if your product will cost $800, make sure it obviously does more than its major competitor.)

Bad taste was the substitute for wit for Teleflora. Pushing its site to send flowers for Valentine's Day, the company had a guy take Faith Hill's advice to speak from his heart and then send a message to his girlfriend that her "rack is unreal."'s (CRM) 15-second ads to push and doing "impossible things" were impossible to follow with any interest.

But not all of high tech was a disappointment. CarMax made a funny observation of how foreign customer service seems to people today, tied the ad in to the theme of the company's business, and managed to at least make a benefit promise to a consumer.

And E*Trade had its spokesbaby give a straightforward explanation of benefits while introducing just enough distraction from a cat to help viewers remember it.

So, it is possible for high tech to use a Super Bowl spot effectively. It just takes studying ads other than Apple's and remembering that bad taste and executive ego are not replacements for a good idea competently executed. That is, unless you can make fun of your own reputation for sexist advertising, like

Unfortunately, that only works if you don't then run a fourth quarter ad that becomes the most disliked ad for its treatment of women as sex objects whose lives and choices are bought and paid for by the company.


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