Groupon Fumbles Super Bowl Handoff

448px-super_bowl_29_vince_lombardi_trophy_at_49ers_family_day_2009Groupon, the barely three-year-old “deal of the day” website that recently turned heads by spurning an acquisition bid by Google, took the aggressive and expensive decision to run a series of ads on Sunday night’s Super Bowl broadcast.   While dot com Super Bowl ads have not historically portended well for the longevity of the tech company in question, Groupon is viewed as a “web 2.0” company with a viable business model in place. With recent chatter in the investment community that Groupon has plans to go public later this year, the Super Bowl provided an opportunity for the company to take their brand to the mainstream and open up their service to a whole new segment of customers.

Great idea, right?

Well, not exactly.

The ads in question took the unusual approach to building brand awareness by satirizing causes held dear to the social responsibility community (rainforest deforestation, protecting endangered species and human rights violations in Tibet). The resulting backlash from the internet has been swift and merciless, making many question whether or not the ads have irreparably damaged Groupon’s brand.

To combat the fallout, Andrew Mason, Groupon’s CEO has issued a statement that explains the thinking behind the campaign and, to his credit, highlights Groupon’s commitment to raising money and awareness for some of the issues mocked in the commercials. However, nowhere in the statement do we see the word “sorry” or “apology,” which may further anger his detractors. And investors have to wonder why Mason doesn’t just put out the fire by admitting the ads were a miscalculation and simply apologize for offending customers and move on rather than giving the issue further legs.

Whether or not the spots (directed by Christopher Guest of Best In Show fame) are funny is pretty much beside the point. The purpose of a Super Bowl ad (especially in the case of a relatively unknown entity like Groupon) is to introduce your brand to a wider audience. While funny can be good, the message still has to be clear and appealing.  At best, the Groupon ads left most confused,  at worst angry.

It remains to be seen what the long term effect these ads will have on Groupon’s customer base and business network (whether this will simply be a blip that blows-over or a major turning point in Groupon’s meteoric rise). Either way, the larger lesson corporate executives and advertisers everywhere will take away is clear: mock social responsibility at your peril.

Image Credit: Broken Sphere