On Super Bowl Sunday, startup darling Groupon (recently valuated at $15 billion) ran a series of ads parodying the extinction of whales, depletion of South American rain forests, and human rights atrocities in Tibet.
The campaign was called "Save The Money."
Cuba Gooding Jr. evoked the struggle to save endangered species to celebrate Groupon's 43 percent discount on a whale-watching boat ride. Elizabeth Hurley lamented the rapid deforestation of the Brazilian rainforest to joke that "not all deforestation is bad," like her 50 percent discount to a Brazilian wax in New York City.
The worst, by far, was Timothy Hutton impressing the importance of Tibet's long-suffering people and culture - only to gleefully dig into a plate of Groupon-discounted fish curry.
In tiny, tiny fine print at the end of the Tibet commercial, it reads, "Actual deal ended on 10/23/10."
All the ads, it should be noted, advertised discounts - Groupons - that expired in 2010. "Save the Money: Whales" ended 12/06/10; "Save the Money: Rainforest" ended on 11/24/10.
It doesn't matter where you sit on any of the issues, this was unbelievably stupid.
Like, slow-motion, Jackass, guy in the shopping cart going down the escalator stupid. But far less funny - because Jackass only hurts the idiots dumb enough to get in the shopping carts.
Groupon got raked over the coals within seconds of airing the $3-million-a-pop spots. Twitter, for the most part, vomited up an angry 2-for-the-price-of-1 Groupon WTF.
But the anger and vitriol didn't stop there, and Groupon's wholly unapologetic responses are not making anything better.
My ad campaign proposal for Groupon: "It Gets Worse"
Groupon's first response to the public outrage was to Tweet, "Like standing too close to a rainbow, viewers' hearts are warmed by #Groupon's Super Bowl ad. #brandbowl http://bit.ly/e7X48C".
O, rly? Confusing burning outrage for warming hearts showed just how unaware Groupon has really become. Bubble, pop thyself.
At that point, mass posts on Twitter were urging people to unsubscribe from the company.
Next, Groupon responded by posting a blog entry on behalf of the company saying that it was, like, just a joke. A parody. And we all know, people have an inexhaustible appetite for making fun of human rights abuses.
As many as 1.2 million Tibetans may have died as a result of the Chinese occupation and cultural genocide.
Even though to most Americans the plight of Tibet is only tangential, or a distant issue, the idea of commercializing human suffering is something that disgusts and repulses almost everyone with a functional heart and brain.
Well, except the ones who made, okayed and paid for the ads.
Response to the post was what you would expect. Comments stretch miles long shaming Groupon for using real suffering to sell product.
Supporters for Groupon haven't made it any prettier, saying that viewers are the ones who are the big fat failures* to see the "humor and compassion" in the ads.
Other supporters left comments that anyone upset by this is just dumb and needs a hippie group hug after "calling off the PC police."
Groupon CEO Andrew Mason posted next, expressing incredulousness that anyone could think the ads were in bad taste. He wrote,
"Not a single person watched our ad and concluded that it’s cool to kill whales. In fact – and this is part of the reason we ran them – they have the opposite effect."
And he's right: not a single person watched the ads and wanted to kill whales, deforest Brazil, or participate in the plight of Tibet.
Those same people also don't want to line the pockets of a company that would trade off those concepts to make a buck - and spend a sickening amount of money to do so.
Commenters cried "BS" on Mason, and pointed out that nowhere in the posts were the words "sorry" or "apology."
Groupon deal: brand new emperor's clothes, invizibul
There's parody like "Spinal Tap" - and we love this. Clearly bringing in "Spinal Tap" director Christopher Guest to direct the spots was what Groupon had in mind.
But even Guest should have known better.
"Spinal Tap" style mockumentaries work - and they rarely work well - because they make fun of cultures that can take it. They mock ideas like underserved fame, unearned success, and humorously elaborate subcultures.
It all hits close to home - too close to home - in today's climate. As it happens, Tech Broiler's own Jason Perlow is connected to the commercials: his first cousin is Scott Kaplan, who wrote all three of the commercials.
When Perlow Tweeted that he was not proud of Cousin Scotty, both brother and mom defended Kaplan's work. Like family would. But Groupon is no-one's family.
By his own personal account, Jason responded to his family via e-mail by saying, "Gee, what if he had written...The Third Reich and the Holocaust was responsible for the death of six million Jews. But thank God enough of them survived so I could pay half price for my Pastrami sandwich and Matzo Ball Soup at Katz's deli!"
Already, the Kenneth Cole social media Egypt insult is practically dust; while Cole personally and publicly apologized, Groupon come nowhere near addressing public unhappiness with the brand. Instead, their current focus is on talking about the philanthropic, web-only aspect of the "Save the Money" campaign, ignoring all else.
Groupon would have been better off making mockumentary ads about idiotic, clueless startups. You know, ones without actual products that waste huge amounts of money for no reason except possibly because they can, and have the will to do so.
Anyone know a company that might be a good candidate?
Just don't throw nine million dollars down a toilet selling me expired coupons in exchange for my first-world guilt and tell me it's for a good cause.
* As of this writing, unlike the All Things Digital article linked to above, Groupon has not backpedaled nor have they removed the Tibet ad.