Baseball is the only sport I watch on television and with the Super Bowl now behind us, we’re that much closer to pitchers and catchers reporting for spring training.
I did, however, get wind of Groupon’s commercial seemingly making fun of the more than one million Tibetans killed during the Chinese occupation. It caught my attention at the speed of the internet. My initial reaction was shock immediately followed by anger and outrage. Have we, as a culture, really fallen this low where consumption trumps all else?
I immediately tweeted, “I’m thinking Groupon should have taken the Google deal. Soon as mine comes in the morning, I’m out of there.”
Turns out, two additional Groupon commercials also aired, each as offensive as the Tibet ad. And more are planned.
The ads cost US$3 million each to air during the Super Bowl.
Andrew Mason, Groupon founder and chief executive, wrote an explainer about the ads, but unfortunately we can’t determine if this was written before or after the ads aired. The blog post carries only a date of 6 February 2011, and the sole comment is time-stamped 1:38PM but without timezone. And at this point, anyone who thinks this couldn’t possibly be Mason further gaming the situation is a fool. “Our peculiar taste in humor made it really hard for outside agencies to come up with concepts we liked,” writes Mason, noting that Groupon settled on working with Crispin Porter + Bogusky (CP+B) who he claims came up with the idea. CP+B is most widely known for its Burger King and BMW MINI commercials and for receiving negative attention for some of its campaigns.
Mason goes on to write, “The gist of the concept is this: When groups of people act together to do something, it’s usually to help a cause. With Groupon, people act together to help themselves by getting great deals. So what if we did a parody of a celebrity-narrated, PSA-style commercial that you think is about some noble cause (such as ‘Save the Whales’), but then it’s revealed to actually be a passionate call to action to help yourself (as in ‘Save the Money’)?”
Thin—very thin—at best.
But then you have to remember that Groupon came out of a collective action and fundraising website and ended up selling coupons almost by accident, according to Mason. “Since we grew out of a collective action and philanthropy site (ThePoint.com) and ended up selling coupons, we loved the idea of poking fun at ourselves by talking about discounts as a noble cause,” he writes.
And then comes the salient bombshell that the Groupon spots were directed by Christopher Guest, mostly known for his mocumentary films like This is Spinal Tap which he wrote and played Nigel Tufnel under Rob Reiner’s direction.
Could these ads be biting parody that I’m either too old or stupid to get? Given Guest’s involvement, it’s certainly possible.
In his blog explainer, Mason ends with a pledge that if Groupon users contribute to the causes featured in the spots, the company will match up to US$100,000 for the three charities—buildOn, Rainforest Action Network, and the Tibet Fund.
The bottom line, as painful and distasteful as it may be, is that Groupon’s Super Bowl spots worked. After spending way too much time thinking about this, I’ve concluded that His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama would probably giggle. Especially if Richard Gere had been cast in the spot instead of Timothy Hutton.