SBD/February 8, 2011/Marketing and Sponsorship

Groupon Makes Rare Branding Misstep With Widely Panned Super Bowl Spot

Chicago-based Groupon "chose the Super Bowl to make its first foray into television commercials after two years of word-of-mouth and online advertising," and its debut "turned out to be the biggest flop of the night, angering consumers and marking a rare branding misstep for a hip startup that counts irreverent humor as one of its hallmarks," according to front-page piece by Wong & Karp of the CHICAGO TRIBUNE. The ad began discussing the plight of Tibet, but then cut to actor Timothy Hutton noting he "saved money at a Chicago Himalayan restaurant" via Groupon. The "backlash was felt immediately on social media platforms such as Twitter," and many consumers "flocked to Groupon's official blog site, where they used words such as 'tasteless,' 'tacky,' 'vulgar' and 'detestable' to describe the ad." Groupon "intended its ad campaign to be a send-up of pompous, celebrity-narrated public service announcements." The company also wanted its commercials "to tell viewers about 'Save The Money,' a philanthropic campaign to raise money for a group of partner organizations, including the Tibet Fund." But in a "critical gaffe," the ads "made no references to the charities or the Web address" for "Save The Money." Groupon CEO Andrew Mason "responded to the criticism in a Monday blog post, explaining that the ads were meant to draw attention to philanthropic causes by humorously highlighting 'the often trivial nature of stuff on Groupon when juxtaposed against bigger world issues.'" Mason noted that Groupon is "tweaking the end of the ads to make the call for donations clearer," but he "defended the spots against criticism that they made light of serious issues." 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?" (CHICAGO TRIBUNE, 2/8).

GAME-TIME DECISION: Groupon PR & Consumer Marketing Manager Julie Mossler said that company officials and reps from Crispin Porter + Bogusky, Miami, "went back and forth about whether to include the www.savethemoney.org reference in the Super Bowl commercial." But she indicated that "all involved in the debate finally decided to make reference only to the Groupon website, since the company was spending $3 million for the Super Bowl air time to drive awareness of Groupon." In Chicago, Lewis Lazare writes the ad "isn't likely to help Groupon in establishing operations in China, which the company is said to be in the process of doing." Thousands of Chinese reportedly "responded negatively to the 'Tibet' ad on the Internet after the ad was posted there" (CHICAGO SUN-TIMES, 2/8). BRANDWEEK's Brian Morrissey reported Groupon "will match the first $100,000 of donations" to The Tibet Fund. The company "has the same program in place for charities linked to the causes of the other commercials like whale preservation and rain forest protection" (BRANDWEEK.com, 2/7).

TAKING OFFENSE: In N.Y., Stuart Elliott notes a group of students at Northwestern Univ.'s Kellogg School of Management assessed Sunday's Super Bowl ads, and marketing professor Tim Calkins said of Groupon's "Tibet" ad, "A lot of our panel thought it was fairly offensive." Calkins: "It makes Groupon seem somewhat insensitive as a company. It might have done quite a bit of damage." A survey by AceMetrix, which "measures the effectiveness of the creative content of television ads," ranked the Groupon ad "54th of the 58 spots that were tracked." Elliott notes Groupon is "known for so-called stunt marketing that is intended to attract attention" (N.Y. TIMES, 2/8). In Boston, Thomas Grillo reports Groupon "drew fierce criticism yesterday for its last-minute Super Bowl ad that made light of the plight of Tibetans." Tibetan Association of Boston member Lobsang Gyaltsen Nanchung: "I was angry when I saw the ad because it made fun of a very serious situation in Tibet." Conover Tuttle Pace Exec Creative Dir Grant Pace: "Between the use of the celebrity and the subject matter, it seems like the perfect storm of bad publicity" (BOSTON HERALD, 2/8). But Wedbush Securities analyst Lou Kerner said that "any negative effect would likely be short-lived and that it's better for companies to take a chance with provocative advertising rather than sitting on the boring sidelines." A source close to Groupon said a "minimal" number of people unsubscribed from the site because of the Super Bowl ads (N.Y. POST, 2/8).

CHANGING THE FORMULA: USA TODAY's Bruce Horovitz notes "several top-rated commercials this year were shown first where consumers are spending increasing time: on social media." Volkswagen, Doritos and Pepsi Max officials "had strategically posted" their Super Bowl ads "on Facebook and YouTube -- and had been tweeting about them like crazy ... long before their ads were broadcast by Fox." The success of these ads "could quickly change the ad world's long-held strategy of keeping Super Bowl ads under wraps until Super Sunday." Volkswagen's "The Force" ad was "posted on social media five days before the game and had 13 million views by kickoff." Volkswagen of America VP/Marketing Tim Ellis: "I continued to hear that was the wrong way to go. But if you want to be part of the national discussion, you not only have to be on the Super Bowl, but you have to fully leverage social media." Anheuser-Busch's Bud Light ad about dogs catering a party was "not seen until" the Super Bowl broadcast, but A-B is "considering posting some of its ads online before next year's Super Bowl." A-B President Dave Peacock: "You get too coy with your work and you can lose consumer interest. We're learning from everyone else about the formulas that work" (USA TODAY, 2/8). Meanwhile, AD AGE's Brian Steinberg wrote, "Perhaps the time has come for Super Bowl stalwarts PepsiCo and Anheuser-Busch to take themselves out of this particular game." Each ad the two companies debuted during Fox' Super Bowl coverage Sunday "seemed worse than the one that preceded it." PepsiCo's "consumer-generated portfolio of stupid men getting smacked in the groin, ducking a can thrown in anger or being tackled by a dog seemed ripped off from previous, better Super Bowl work." Meanwhile, A-B "feels directionless," as Sunday's "shenanigans -- yes, even the partying dogs -- were about as memorable as whatever Skechers hurled at the screen" (ADAGE.com, 2/7).

MOTOR CITY MARKETING: NM Incite, which tracks online buzz, indicated Chrysler's ad featuring Eminem was the "big story of the night" Sunday. The company noted that consumers "repeated the 'Imported From Detroit' slogan in online comments" (AP, 2/7). FANHOUSE.com's Joe Lapointe wrote the Chrysler ad is an "astonishing work of art and one of the best television commercials ever made, a mini-documentary about the history and current personality of a region" (FANHOUSE.com, 2/7). CRAIN'S DETROIT BUSINESS' Bill Shea reported the Chrysler 200, which the ad touts, was the "most-searched thing on Google.com hours after the spot aired" (CRAINSDETROIT.com, 2/7). At presstime, the ad has more than 3.7 million YouTube views (THE DAILY). Meanwhile, Colle + McVoy President & CEO Christine Fruechte said, “What blew me away ... was just the amount of auto advertising.” Fruechte said the auto industry “is trying to regain consumer confidence" ("In The Loop," Fox Business, 2/7).

PUTTING IT ALL IN PERSPECTIVE: Richter7 CEO Scott Rockwood said the Super Bowl advertising was "a little disappointing overall." Richter: "I don't think there was an advertisement in the group that will go down as one of the great ads in Super Bowl history." Richter7 gave its "most valuable ad" award to Volkswagen "for its affectionate tribute to 'Star Wars' and to the child who played the villain Darth Vader trying to start his father's Passat." The agency gave the "best low-budget award" to Doritos for its "Best Part" spot "for its finger-licking and pants-licking gross-out" (SALT LAKE TRIBUNE, 2/8). Villanova School of Business marketing professor Charles Taylor: "I'd call it a good year, even though the public perception seems to be that it was pretty mediocre. The problem is that people have developed very, very high expectations for these Super Bowl commercials. So the advertisers are having to take bigger risks to get noticed. That results in a batch of ads that has both hits and misses" (PHILADELPHIA INQUIRER, 2/8). ESPN's Skip Bayless: "This was the worst overall batch of Super Bowl commercials I can ever remember" ("ESPN First Take," ESPN2, 2/7).
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