Were Super Bowl Groupon ads over the line?

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By Tressa Eckermann, Senior Staff Writer

About half of the people who watch the Super Bowl aren’t watching it for the actual game. They’re watching it for the commercials.

Every year we get some really hilarious ads that people are still talking about a year later – and then there are the ones that fall flat on their faces. Either they’re boring, too silly or they just don’t work. This year, three ads fell between those categories.

Groupon is a deal-of-the-day website that offers group deals and coupons. If a certain number of people sign up for an offer, the deal becomes available for all. In many ways, Groupon has become the new “it” website, recently turning down a $5 billion buyout from Google.

This year was supposed to be their coming-out party. They’d never aired a commercial during the Super Bowl, the largest advertising market of the year. Their first ad featured Oscar winner Cuba Gooding Jr. lamenting about the plight of whales and the dangers they face from extinction. But don’t worry, we can still get coupons to go whale watching, he informs us. Well, thank goodness for that.

My first reaction was surprise. I wasn’t offended, just somewhat confused.

“That was random,” I said, but quickly shrugged it off. It was just another ad that missed the mark. No big deal, just a weird commercial.

Then came their next ad, featuring Elizabeth Hurley talking about the horrors of deforestation in the Amazon. But again, no worries, she says, as we can still get coupons for a spa visit because “not all deforestation is bad.” 

My first thought was, “Well, ick.” I actually laughed a little because it was so ridiculous and I couldn’t believe they actually got away with it. I didn’t think too much of it because it certainly wasn’t the funniest thing I’d ever seen, but it also wasn’t the worst.

And then came their final ad, starring Oscar winner and one of my favorite actors, Timothy Hutton.

“The people of Tibet are in trouble,” he says. “Their very culture is in jeopardy.”

As they cut to a restaurant setting, he adds, “But they still whip up an amazing fish curry!”

I looked around the room and every jaw was on the floor. Apparently, I wasn’t the only one completely offended. Let’s just say all my excitement at seeing Timothy Hutton disappeared pretty quickly.

I’m not easily offended, but I have to ask, who was the genius who thought this would be a good idea?

“How do we make a splash with our ad?  I know, let’s make a joke about how entire nations must struggle to gain basic human rights. Oh, and let’s cast a well-liked actor to do it. It’ll probably go over better. And then, let’s get Christopher Guest, one of the funniest people ever, to direct it. They won’t be able to resist!”

Smooth move, Groupon.

Anybody who knows anything about the struggles of Tibet should be offended. I’m all for crossing the line when it comes to comedy, but this just felt wrong. My guess is the people at Groupon were not expecting the outraged reaction they got. Or, maybe they just didn’t care, as evidenced by the non-apology posted on their blog at groupon.com/blog.

CEO Andrew Mason wrote: “We would never have run these ads if we thought they trivialized the causes.  Even if we didn’t take them as seriously as we do, what type of company would go out of their way to be so antagonistic?”

Doesn’t that just make you feel better? Basically, all they were saying was, “We’re sorry because we got in trouble and besides, was it really that bad?”

At first, I thought maybe I was taking it way too seriously. But then, I realized that was the only way it could be taken. An upstart company that had the potential to make really memorable ads onlymade ads that succeeded in offending millions of people. In order to get attention, they decided to make light of situations that are literally changing our world.

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