Groupon in the Red Zone


The last time we visited with the monster of all local couponing sites, it had to do with the unorthodox way the company’s founder deflected the obvious question from NBC Today’s Matt Lauer. Groupon’s Andrew Mason, in the wake of turning down $6 billion from Google, chose to obfuscate with some long, irrelevant pre-planned diatribe when asked about the widely reported offer.

Today, Mr. Mason and company have stirred the media waters again as a result of the company’s first TV spots that bowed on the world’s biggest advertising stage. More on that in a sec.

Having handled a fair share of PR campaigns for Super Bowl ads, including three years running for another start-up back in the day, I’m amazed by how much media time and space this one-time sidebar story commands today.

Back then, coverage was limited to a handful of the key ad beat and trade reporters, e.g., The Times’s Stuart Elliott, AdWeek former longtime critic Barbara Lippert, AdAge former longtime critic (and now NPR “On the Media” co-host, auhtor, etc.) Bob Garfield, the AP’s Skip Wollenberg, USA Today, and a bunch of others. Soon, the syndicated and cable entertainment shows ET, Access, CNN ShowBiz all got into the act, followed by the network evening news casts. Today, Super Bowl ad coverage is ubiquitous — from the advance buzz and real-time armchair quarterbacking on Twitter to the morning-after polls run by what seems like every mainstream news, entertainment and pop culture site.

Back then, we made the spots available to journalists well in advance of the game to ensure they stand out from the clutter. Screw the element of surprise! Out goal was simple: get included in as many advance and post-event Super Bowl ad round-up stories as possible. All that incremental ink and airtime measurably accrued to brand awareness, which was (and is) the holy grail for any start-up.

Also in the early days, we were saddled with sending hard copies of tapes to these key ad reporters. I kind of remember Stuart having this Sony U-Matic tape player in the Times newsroom for his viewing (dis)pleasure. That soon changed with the advent of the Internet. If memory serves me well, we were the first agency to post our client’s Super Bowl spots online — again, for HotJobs — and invite select journalists to come view them in advance of the game. This was a revelation for many, and made our jobs much easier.

Back to last night’s winners and losers. Apparently, Crispin Porter, Groupon’s newly hired agency that brought us all those fabled buzzworthy Burger King spots, didn’t anticipate how much of a lightening rod the subject of Tibet would spark. Or maybe they did. In a game day blog post on its website, Groupon’s CEO offered some context for his first Super Bowl spots:

“After a two-year holdout, we finally decided to run real television ads. In the past, we’ve depended mostly on word-of-mouth and limited our advertising to online search for a couple of reasons. For one, we don’t know if television ads are worth the money. More importantly, television ads are such a huge creative statement, and so hard to do well, that we were worried it’d be near impossible to find an ad agency that could make ads we’d be confident in airing.”

He ended the post with a philanthropic element that perhaps was added to neutralize whatever controversy the offbeat ads would produce: “

“You can view the already aired commercials, as well as new ones as we release them, at . And if you’ve saved enough money for yourself and feel like saving something else, you can donate to mission-driven organizations that are doing great work for the causes featured in our PSA parodies. If you guys pony up, Groupon will contribute matching donations of up to $100,000 for three featured charities – Rainforest Action Network, buildOn, and the Tibet Fund — and Groupon credit of up to $100,000 for contributions made to Greenpeace.”

Even so, Vanity Fair wrote in its round-up titled “Ten Super Bowl Ads That Everyone is Talking About:

“Our Take: The holy-shit moment of the night. A misfire. Groupon thought it would be fun to introduce itself to the wider world with a TV commercial that makes fun of Hollywood political correctness. But they went about it in the wrong way. Nobody dislikes Tibet, and liberals and conservatives alike would like to see it have its independence from China.”

While MSNBC likened Groupon’s effort to Kenneth Cole’s, another subject of this blog, in its post titled “Groupon Super Bowl ads draw scorn: Some offended by ads that appear to make light of Tibet, rainforest:

“Groupon may have been one of the least-known companies to advertise on Super Bowl Sunday, but it’s getting a lion’s share of the day-after buzz. Too bad it’s for the wrong reason. The online deals site managed to attract the scorn of customers, brand experts and even some Chinese residents with a pair of ads that seemed to make light of the fraught political situation in Tibet and deforestation in Brazil. Both ads followed the same formula.”

As Andrew noted in his pre-game blog post:

“This year, we realized that in spite of how much we’d grown, a ton of people still hadn’t heard of Groupon, so we decided to give in to our Napoleon complex and invade the rest of the world with a proper Super Bowl commercial.”

Well, Andrew, Groupon is now properly implanted in the minds of consumers everywhere, for better or worse. Now you’re wondering whether you should address the controversy or not. How about a contrived story from your childhood?


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