Groupon’s Superbowl: Social media (C)PR

Simon Mainwaring / Advertising / 4 years ago

Much has been written about Groupon’s PR missteps at the Superbowl over the last two days. Their three ads (representing a $3 million ad buy) poked fun at celebrity-endorsed PSAs for endangered whales, the Brazilian rainforest, and Tibet. The ads were variously described as in bad taste or simply poor communications because they failed to mention that Groupon was matching people’s donations to these causes up to $100,000.

What the Groupon ads do offer, however, are useful lessons in a) effective communication in today’s social business marketplace; b) what happens when traditional and social media mentalities collide and; c) how well-intended cause marketing must be managed for a brand to resonate with consumers. Let’s take them one by one.

a) Clearly the audience for the Superbowl is enormous and varied but one thing today’s consumers share is a heightened awareness of global crises, causes and social issues thanks to information on the Internet shared in real time using social media. As such, there is a level of sophistication to consumer’s understanding of the challenges the world faces, and specific causes such as Tibet, the environment or the oceans. It is a dangerous tactic to poke fun at these issues even if your brand is the butt of the joke. At worst, such strategies are seen to put the brand’s desire for you to like them above the gravity of these causes. At best, the Groupon ads were inspired by good intentions but they weren’t clearly communicated, which means the ads were poorly executed.

b) As such, the Groupon campaign is a powerful demonstration of a traditional media mindset being applied to a social media marketplace. It demonstrated a failure to understand that effective communication now requires that a brand be the chief celebrant of a community rather than its celebrity. In this case, the awkward attempt at humor may be due in part to the expectation that these were to be “Superbowl ads.” As such, the humor overwhelmed the intent, leaving the commercials falling between the two stools.

This mistake is especially odd since Groupon is a daily deal platform that turns on collective action whose dynamics now drive much of the social media marketplace. As such, the driver of all communications should be their community. Plus Groupon understands very well how the marketplace has changed. The Superbowl is no longer the largest platform for a brand to talk about itself, but rather an amazing opportunity to amplify the needs, wants and hopes of a brand community.

c) Cause marketing by brands is on the rise for a very good reason – these universal values allow brands to be innately relevant and sharable within social media communities. But greater brand adoption does not make these issues any less sensitive, especially to customers. A brand must earn serious credentials within the social change space before it can confidently take license with the seriousness of cause issues. Even though Groupon’s roots are in social activism through The Point and now with G-Team Initiative, they miscalculated how to use cause marketing because the majority of the Superbowl audience knows little about them and even less about their meaningful cause efforts. It’s no surprise then that consumers mistook them as appropriating cause issues for the sake of humor in a way that left people shaking their heads.

So what does Groupon do? Andrew Mason, Groupon CEO, has written a blog post that aims to justify their strategy while also explaining their intentions. Such justification will have little effect after the fact and it’s tortuous logic to argue that at least the bad publicity has brought greater attention to these causes. But a clear statement of their true intentions is a great start. While he falls short of apologizing, Mason does state:

“The last thing we wanted was to offend our customers – it’s bad business and it’s not where our hearts are.”

Fair enough, and few doubt their good intentions. If nothing else, the campaign serves as a lesson in the perils of a headlong rush to create a “Superbowl ad campaign”, the distraction of being an e-commerce darling in a blooming IPO marketplace, and in the recognition that while causes make good marketing they are far more important than that.

Do you believe the Groupon campaign has been unfairly judged? How do you think they are handling the PR fallout?

14 Comments

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  1. Chuck Kent says:

    I think Groupon has been fairly judged, and I think it’s also fair to question their intentions. Sadly,their principal intention with cause marketing (at least as presented to 111 million SuperBowl viewers) appears to be the advancement of their own bottom line cause. And like many Super Bowl advertisers, their goal seems to have been not only to reach a massive audience, but to inflate already massive corporate and agency egos – a conclusion only buttressed by the unapologetic (and to me, unwise) response of Andrew Mason, who is coming off as just another smarter-than-thou master of the Internet (OK, so Andrew may indeed have a few IQ points on me… but, at least in this regrettable example, he trails far behind even the most middling marketers when it comes to the art of honest, effective human communication).

    1. Thanks, Chuck. It’s hard to know what caused the miscommunications of the
      spots, but judging by the response they were ineffective. That said, some
      people have told me they loved them , so it’s definitely in the eyes of the
      beholder. Personally I believe they missed their mark. Thanks, Simon

      1. Beth says:

        I think Groupon needs to be more mindful of their audience. An audience is comprised of an array of demographics, personalities, etc.; there will always be those who are offended or opinionated and that just speaks to the environment and culture that we’ve created. When you’re planning an advertising campaign for a largely universal audience, such as the Super Bowl, you need to be more aware of the impact that your ad can create. If you’re a thoughtful and forward-thinking company, plan your ad campaign accordingly by crafting your messages for a varied audience. Given the responses and criticism that Groupon has been subject to since the airing of their ads, I don’t believe they executed their campaign with this mindset. This demonstrates a lack of research and understanding of their audience and in turn, has potentially damaged their brand reputation. CEO Andrew Mason has made a decent effort to communicate Groupons remorse and intentions. It’s worth monitoring the company’s continued actions to see how they handle future ads.

        1. Thanks, Beth and I agree. You have to be more sensitive to your audience
          rather than be solely intent on creating a Superbowl ad. Andrew Mason
          apologized today and pulled the ads which was the right thing to do. I
          believe they got bad advice that was poorly executed. lessons learned all
          round. Thanks. simon

  2. Ansie78701 says:

    I believe the Groupon ad campaign during Superbowl was in poor taste. And Groupon and their agency should be rightly chastised.

    1. Thanks, Ansie. Yes, I think the marketplace has spoken and they realize they
      made a mistake. Simon

  3. [...] an acquisition reportedly valuing the company at $6 billion. Ah, how quickly things change when you pull a Kenneth Cole and make a series of insensitive Super Bowl ads. And then you try to justify them and it doesn’t [...]

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  5. [...] an acquisition reportedly valuing the company at $6 billion. Ah, how quickly things change when you pull a Kenneth Cole and make a series of insensitive Super Bowl ads. And then you try to justify them and it doesn’t [...]

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  7. iconic88 says:

    The Groupon ad campaign was a #fail in my opinion Simon. For 1, I come from Tonga and we look to preserve the lives of the humpback whales as they bring in tourists. We are one of two countries in the world where one can swim in the water with them.

    Did the agency get it wrong? Most definitely.

    If the ad poked fun at a cause or person’s close to Andrew Mason’s heart, it would be interesting to know how he would feel.

    Andrew Mason would’ve been well served to seek your counsel ;)

    All the best,
    Mahei

    1. Thanks Mahei. Fortunately they’ve pulled the ads and apologized. I’m sure
      the agency and client hashed out the fallout. An interesting case study to
      be sure and lesson for other brands. Thanks, Simon

      1. iconic88 says:

        Who knows Simon, this could’ve been a deliberate strategy to get the reaction it has attracted then come back in Round 2 with a more improved version ;) If this is the case, it’s worked a treat.

        1. Wow. That may be true but quite a risk. You never know. S.