Groupon Campaign: Gross or Great?

“If your advertising goes unnoticed, everything else is academic.” So said 1960’s advertising creative guru Bill Bernbach. And while it’s true that bold beats bland every time, setting out purely to get impact for impact’s sake is a highly risky and questionable tactic. That’s the lesson that Groupon, the Chicago-based collective buying power website, has learned over the past week or so.

Groupon has enjoyed a stratospheric rise to retail prominence since launching in October 2008. Little more than two years in, the company reportedly now turns over US$500 million and late last year knocked back a US$6 billion offer from Google.

Groupon recently decided to try and further accelerate its levels of consumer awareness by advertising in this year’s Superbowl telecast (which incidentally became the most-watched television program in TV history with 111 million viewers).
 
So they hired creative hot-shop Crispin Porter + Bogusky, plonked US$7 million on the table for two Superbowl spots (yes that’s $3.5 million for each 30 second placement) and set about enhancing the Groupon legend. And that’s when things started going off the rails.
 
The ads were mockumentary in style, directed by Christopher Guest of “This is Spinal Tap” and “Best in Show” fame. Each spot started with a Hollywood star (Cuban Gooding Jr., Timothy Hutton, Elizabeth Hurley) seemingly pleading for community support of a charitable cause – endangered whales, the people of Tibet, or the Brazilian rainforest. Almost immediately though, the commercials flipped into pitches for deals at Groupon. So as Timothy Hutton begins his ad by bemoaning the plight of the Tibetans, he ends by saying how great it is that you can still get a bargain on a curry at a Chicago Himalayan restaurant.

What the ads failed to communicate is that Groupon actually supports each of these causes, by matching public donations dollar-for-dollar at www.savethemoney.org. This missing piece of the communications puzzle made the ads at the very least bizarre and at the worst offensive to many. They seemed to trivialise and take advantage of worthy causes.

Groupon went into damage control, and amended the ads to include the savethemoney.org message. But by this time it was too late. Social media sites went into meltdown. And the bewildered Groupon CEO, Andrew Mason, was forced to withdraw the ads and apologise. “We thought we were poking fun at ourselves, but clearly the execution was off and the joke didn’t come through. I personally take responsibility; although we worked with a professional ad agency, in the end, it was my decision to run the ads.”

The question of course is this: did Groupon intentionally set out to be controversial, or did they simply misfire? As industry blog Ad Freak commented; “love or hate the approach, give Groupon its due for igniting more conversations (albeit some uncomfortable ones) than almost any other advertiser in the (Superbowl) game.”

It’s probably only with the benefit of time that we will decide whether this campaign was gross or great, in poor taste or inspired. In the meantime, it serves as a cautionary tale for any advertiser who just wants to be noticed.

Jon Bird is CEO of specialist retail marketing agency IdeaWorks (www.ideaworks.com.au). Email jon.bird@ideaworks.com.au. For more retail insights and inspiration, visit www.newretailblog.com.

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