FAIL: Groupon Picks Boring Over Polarizing


A lot has been written about the ads Groupon ran during the Super Bowl, including an interesting social media CPR synopsis by Fast Company. If you’ve somehow been living under a rock, here’s what you missed this week in Social Media Melodramas. Groupon was looking to increase brand awareness at the biggest dance of the year and went to Crispin Porter + Bogusky for help. What they got for their $3 million ad spend was a handful of mock celebrity endorsement ads that poked fun at Tibet, endangered whales and those poor depleting rainforests, while also aiming to raise money for the same causes. But when that last part wasn’t highlighted well, the company found itself torn apart in the court of public opinion for trying to cash in on others tragedies. After riding the wave for the past few days, the ads were pulled and Groupon apologized. Aw.

Here’s a snippet of the statement released by Groupon CEO Andrew Mason on why the ads were yanked.

We hate that we offended people, and we’re very sorry that we did – it’s the last thing we wanted. We’ve listened to your feedback, and since we don’t see the point in continuing to anger people, we’re pulling the ads […] We will run something less polarizing instead. 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.

Okay, so here’s the thing.

Groupon is an emerging startup known for being both quirky and supporters of social activism. In theory, the ads created were smart because they highlighted both components and showed off the Groupon personality. Well done there. And well done to Groupon for trying to be edgy and recruiting the viral marketing geniuses at CP + B. Did the ads flop when users missed the activism call to action? Some might say they did. But for all the drama, $500,000 will still be netted for the causes and Groupon has been on the tip of everyone’s tongue (and blog) all week long.

All those “outraged” people – do they matter? Will they remember why they were so mad in a week? Can any of them pick out Tibet on a map or name a country that even has a rainforest? My money’s on no. They’re faux offended. But that’s a different issue for a different post.

What really irked me about Andrew’s apology was that he’s not yanking the commercials because, in hindsight, he agrees they were offensive. He doesn’t appear to think that at all. Groupon’s pulling the ads because they polarized people. And that’s a sucky reason for doing anything.

Groupon is a fast-growing startup. The smartest thing they can do is polarize people. To create a segment of the population that is SO pissed off at them they can’t even stand it and to create another segment who thinks the ads were ingeniously hilarious. Because that’s how you grow a community and a fan base. It’s also how you get people talking about you, increase the eyes on your brand and show more people what you have to offer. And if you think there weren’t any people who loved the ads, you’re wrong. Plenty of people found those ads to smart and funny, they’re just not blogging about it because no one is going to blog about how hilarious they found that anti-save the whales commercial were.

No, I mean, besides me.

If Groupon wants to apologize for offending people, fine. But they should stand behind what they created. Maybe it wasn’t perfect and maybe it ruffled some feathers, but if you believe in them, you stand by them. That’s how you show people what you’re about. You’re about being quirky, irrelevant, and laughing at yourself and the seriousness of life. I don’t know about you, but that’s a brand mission statement I can get behind. You don’t become a brand people love by sitting in the middle of the road. Spend too much there and you’re going to get run over. And that’s typically what we see with brands.

Being polarizing is what makes your brand interesting and connects it to others.

For as many people who despised Michael Jackson, he’s also revered. For as many people who think Snooki is an abomination on the human race, she’s a New York Times best-selling author with a huge platform. For as many who are puzzled by Lady Gaga, others can’t get enough. The story isn’t found in the averages, it’s found in the outliers.

Don’t be afraid to be polarizing to prove a point, to move a conversation, or to get people to notice you – as long as it’s authentic. As long as you actually believe what you’re preaching and what you’re putting out. I think Groupon believed in those ads and they should have stood by them. The reason most ads and companies fail is because they’re unable to leave any kind of impression, good or bad. They’re safe, they’re boring and they’re forgettable. Last weekend Groupon took a stand and they became memorable. They polarized their audience. And good for them. Too bad they went back on it.

Your Comments

  • Joe Hall

    So we should be like Sarah Palin? Got it!

  • Gene Daly

    I agree, Lisa… it would have been nice to see Groupon take the controversy and use it to support their causes in some way…. vote on whether the spots were all in good fun vs. being offensive, if you agree to contribute $$$ to the cause, for example.

    • Lisa Barone

      I would have liked to see the company not back down. For the most part, they’re trying to please someone who’s probably not their customer anyway. When you make your company for the masses, you remove what’s interesting.

  • Scott Randolph

    They weren’t polarizing at all – that’s just a nice way of saying they were a poorly executed attempt at absurdist humor.

    That’s the real problem – it was a BRILLIANT idea, the execution was absolutely terrible. If people don’t “get” it, when you’re talking a commercial, that’s on the company and ad agency, not the people.

    The real people laughing are CP+B – they did a poor job and are still getting paid. Let Groupon deal with the fallout.

    • Lisa Barone

      I think it was polarizing in that some people truly did like it and others really didn’t…but you’re right, the bigger issue wasn’t that it was polarizing, but that the ad failed to do what they wanted to do. The idea was a really good one, but they failed in the execution. Still would have be nice to see them do something more interesting with it than just give in to pressure and remove them.

  • Nick LeRoy

    I agree 100% with what you wrote but to play devils advocate… I’m sure Groupon panicked when the “people” who made them so successful were so e-disgusted with their campaigns. What they forgot is that these people are the same ones that would sell their grandmother in order to save $5 on the next unnecessary product that’s advertised on Groupon.

    I personally still don’t “get” the whole Groupon thing. I was on the site the other day looking at a $20/$40 deal on a local flower site. The issue – the flower site jacked their delivery fees up to $20.00 for Valentines day deliveries. Wheres the deal in this? How many people purchase this “deal” without doing their research first. I guess i’m old school, i’ll just pick some flowers up for the wife on the way home from work Monday… No shipping issues and i’ll spend the same amount regardless of the “Deal” Groupon offers.

    • Lisa Barone

      What they forgot is that these people are the same ones that would sell their grandmother in order to save $5 on the next unnecessary product that’s advertised on Groupon.

      LOL! I’d actually be interested to see a spread of how many of their “real” customers were offended vs how many who were just seeing the brand for the first time. Those would be good numbers. I can’t help but feel like they just neutered their brand message for people who have no value to them to begin with.

      And I will totally believe that people get excited by a Groupon deal without doing any research at all. They just assume that’s the best deal since it’s the “deal of the day”.

  • Scott Randolph

    @Nick – one real benefit to this whole thing was that it led me to a lot of info about Groupon and how they effect businesses, and the kinds of customers they bring in.

    Needless to say – I wouldn’t use them.

  • Christine Seib

    I think I have to disagree with you here. The intent of the ads were:
    1. Create excitement about the brand
    2. Grow awareness about their product/site
    3. Encourage charitable donations

    The intent was not to create a polarizing campaign. They said as much. They didn’t intend for it to get the reaction it got. Because of that, they were short-sighted. For not adjusting the ads to make them align better with their goals, they were being naive. The ads didn’t work. It’s not that they couldn’t have; it’s that they didn’t. The execution was off. Sometimes that happens, so you mop up the mess and try something else. A commercial is what you said, and it is not a medium to stand next to and have to exclaim, “But that’s not what I meant!

    • Lisa Barone

      I totally agree with you about the INTENT of the ads vs what actually happened. The ads didn’t work, they’re totally at fault for that. But they really did believe in them and I think there’s a way they could have leveraged them to still do right by the charities (though they did net 500k) and the Groupon brand.

      Where I will disagree slightly is in your saying their intent wasn’t to get a reaction or to possibly be polarizing. Because I don’t think you hire CP + B if it’s not. They’re not your average ad agency. They’re known for creating things a bit off the wall that get people talking. You don’t go to that firm if you’re looking to skate by unnoticed.

      • Sabre

        Agree with Lisa on hiring CP + B, but even if you throw that out, retracting from all of this is not the right move. Marketing campaigns change faces all the time. Regardless of who you hire to do the campaign, or what kind of campaign it is, you best be able to roll with the punches.

        What if the ads were hilariously funny, people loved them and it went viral only to have a massive natural disaster happen in Tibet the next week? Things happen the way you don’t expect all the time, but taking a step back is never really a smart option.

  • Sabre

    I’m going to agree with Scott and say these ads weren’t even funny in the “oh my goodness this is so hilariously offensive” way. Maybe that is what people are subconsciously angry about?

    Using inappropriate or politically incorrect humor on purpose in order to promote your business only really works if the ad is so hilarious and share-able that it completely distracts from the fact that you’re being “offensive”. Humor trumps being PC, every single time, so you better make damn sure these are viral ads before plastering them during Super Bowl time. I am wondering what kind of market testing they did before releasing these, if they did any!

    I also agree with Lisa. It’s too late, the cat is out of the bag already and it has nine lives so there is no retracting it. If I were Groupon I would of said: “We thought they were funny, we’re trying to get people’s attention to raise money for these causes, but obviously we failed! Have a good laugh anyway, only at US!” Then keeps those ads rolling, and in the next campaign get a little self-deprecation going so that the people who turned into haters can laugh at you and forget they’re offended.

    • Lisa Barone

      They’re definitely not “OMG” offensive, but when I saw the Cuba Gooding Jr. I did let out a “oh no he didn’t” remark before beginning my set of giggles. They weren’t crazy offensive at all, which is partly what makes the outrage over them so amusing. They were just silly.

      • Kate Wooddell

        Perhaps some of you folks just haven’t lived with these concerns as long as others of us have. I was at first captivated by the idea that someone was bringing attention to these issues in such a venue, then gutted as I saw the switcharoo, with no reference to donations or actual support for these causes. The brilliance is that they chose the most sacred of the psuedo activist cows so as to have the most visceral effect. But as MIchelle noted below, if you have to explain what you were really doing, then you have failed.
        Perhaps, too, they forgot that there are still a lot of us around for whom activism is more than a click or a text or a Tweet. When you come from the generation that risked lives and jail time for the sake of these very causes (perhaps we invented polarizing action), who increased their store of nasty diseases to travel to vulnerable places, who did not spend their youth starting up quirky or cutting edge enterprises but volunteering “on the ground” to help bring about change, I think you have a right to be offended by these commercials. Think of how you’d have reacted had they used your own favorite chairty or issue in this way.
        I “get” Groupon, even as an oldster, but I immediately unsubscribed in protest. However, I never do such things without sending a letter. I got an immediate explanatory email, complete with links to Mason’s initial response (pre apology). I wrote back saying “thanks, but not enough.” I am debating whether to resubscribe now or not…even if I have to forego use of my Chutney Joe’s copons.

  • Michelle Lowery

    I think Groupon could have avoided this snafu in a few ways. If they had released the Tibet commercial prior to the Super Bowl the way Volkswagen did with their force commercial. If they had made it more obvious that there was a charity involved. And if they had made it known beforehand that Christopher Guest directed all three commercials.,51422/

    Many of the people who were upset, but who are familiar with Guest’s work might have been a little more forgiving. But what it comes down to is, if you have to explain the joke, it’s not worth telling it. It was a good idea that was poorly executed.

    I also think Groupon was pretty quick to back down because they’re just coming off the other snafu in Japan. Had that not happened first, they may not have been so quick to capitulate in this case.

    They’re gun shy now. And that’s no way to run a company.

  • Le Juge SEO

    I think the The Ad agency should refund the cash and/or give it to the causes they were trying to raise money for.

    The fact they were raising money for Tibet, whales or rain forest was completely invisible and as such those ads were shocking. I don;t think Groupon should bear all the responsibility for this – The creatives should also face their mistakes.

    I also wonder what the “celeb’s” (it’s been a long time since I’ve seen C. Gooding Junior or Elisabeth Hurley in a movie – I mean a good one) ahve thought when they have seen the ads?

  • Ross Hudgens

    I disagree. I do believe there is a need to be polarizing at an entry level – to gain attention. If you are just there, just OK, you do nothing revolutionary worth taking attention of. This I hundred percent agree with. But at a certain level, at a certain stanza of impact, becoming polarizing is actually something that negatively effect market share.

    For those gargantuan brands – those that have passed the levels of acceptability, such as Google, or those running for President – creating polarizing campaigns is the exact opposite of what they want to accomplish. Presidents aim to be left or right, yes, but also as close as humanly possible to the middle to pull in the most votes. At no point does Google offending people potentially make them more remarkable – they have the opportunity to pull in everyone.

    To begin, I think this polarization has to occur, and Groupon did that to gain traction. Google was also something that was polarizing. But past that entry to mid-level stage in a business where polarization can actually help the bottom line, it can now negatively impact your great goals.

    Groupon has the ability to pull in everyone. They can be Google for that market need. They don’t have to splinter. To polarize is to corrupt potential market share in that instance.

    Do I believe that these kinds of things suck? Yes. They absolutely do. But those things that suck and also help the bottom line are frequently on the same side of the balancing beam.

  • Alan Bleiweiss

    If Groupon were truly smart at this point, they’d have gotten the Dalai Lama, shot a new commercial, and turned the whole thing around, with the focus of making fun of themselves (Groupon) and the Asshat Agency “creative” team.

  • George Bounacos

    I understand the point about Groupon’s current customer base not being as offended as the wider audience, but I think the wider audience was the whole target, and if they don’t understand, it’s a failure.

    Groupon has proven that they are brilliant online marketers. Folks commenting on a blog like this know exactly who they are and may have used their services. Certainly they are aware of the company rebuffing Google.

    But the reason to go wide as they did during the Super Bowl was to grow their audience to the mainstream. Kudos for trying. But they had to retract and retrench to avoid being seen as those snarky Internet people who aren’t good businesspeople because the mainstream world likely doesn’t understand Mason, the Groupon model or why the company turned down so much money.

    And if their goal wasn’t to raise awareness among mainstream America, they bought the wrong media. I don’t think that happened. The ad wasn’t run to say, “Maybe the online world will laugh so much at our clever spot that they’ll buy even more.” It was run to capture the American market who moved from thinking AOL was the Internet to Facebook is the internet with software called Google.

    Just go back to last year’s Read Write Web thread on that month’s new Facebook and how they attracted so many non-marketers. Remember some big percentage of American citizens still believes the President was born in Kenya and the culmination of an elaborate 50 year conspiracy.

    And that’s why I think Groupon had no choice.

  • Chris Reimer

    Marketing to particular niches via polarization is fine. In fact, it’s what makes marketing effective. Offending people is a different matter.

    The people of Tibet have suffered under occupation – torture, imprisonment, rape, and murder. This is something we want to poke fun at? Would it have been OK to have a Nazi-themed commercial making fun of the Jews? No, this would have been highly offensive. If the argument goes that GroupOn’s ad is OK because it polarizes, then you’re actually arguing that the Tibetan issue is just not that important.

    How about an ad with grotesquely fat people, and it’s a GroupOn for a health club? Or a woman that can’t stay in her own lane, and a GroupOn for driving school. NO!

    I’m not faux-offended. They just ran a really crappy ad that doesn’t accurately represent their brand (or does it?) At the very least, the ad is in extremely poor taste. At worst, it’s making light of human atrocities a world away. We can market better than this.

    • Sabre

      You seem to be under the impression that mainstream America is aware of what’s going on in Tibet. I would venture to guess that most Americans don’t even know what’s going on in Egypt, even though it’s plastered all over our news currently.

      With that said, I think that people discard the notion that humor can actually educate. Humor can put information in front of some people that wouldn’t normally see it.

      You also must understand that in many instances, dramatic outcry against attempts at humor like this is distracting from the issue just as much as the humor itself. On the other hand, the offended who outcry may actually be serving a purpose in spreading awareness about the very thing being mocked. The more fuel added to the flame, the more people will pay attention.

      This is what Lisa meant by using polarization to get people talking about your brand/an issue. You may say that morally, “we can market better than this” but using an unorthodox approach may actually be better in some instances. Our media desensitizes us to the point that many don’t even pay attention to what goes on anymore. Our news media is numbing. Finding a way to create a conversation (whether or not someone got offended) may do us all some good.

      It doesn’t necessarily devalue the Tibetan issue and Lisa’s not arguing that it’s not important, it’s just perspective on how this situation could of been a lot better for Groupon (and even the causes they were trying to promote) if they hadn’t retracted.

  • Beau Blackwell

    Interesting article, and I agree with you that if you’re not polarizing people, you probably haven’t identified your target customer well enough.

    One small note: I hate to be the typo nazi here, but towards the end you wrote:

    You’re about being quirky, irrelevant, and laughing at yourself and the seriousness of life.

    I think you meant “irreverent,” right? Because I don’t think too many people or companies want to be about being irrelevant :)

  • P_R

    I have studied the cultural differences in humour between different countries. And I can tell you exactly why this campaign failed.

    Groupon forgot one key thing: Most Americans do NOT “get” satire.

    As a society they tend to be very open, friendly, and trusting—which ties in with the sentiments carved on the Statue of Liberty. But this also means that if you say something satirical or sarcastic, you need to give them a wink & a nudge to let them know you don’t really mean what you’re saying.

    They like their humour laid out in front of them, with no need to think beyond the top layer to see the true intent beneath. This is why we have such a glut of gross-out comedies & TV shows. You don’t have to think to “get” the humour of a guy getting hit in the crotch with a football, or using ejaculate as hair gel. “The Simpsons” is successful because of its multi-layered humour—with a layer for every taste, from the simple & straight-up to the deep & multi-faceted.

    By failing to make it absolutely crystal-clear that the ads were satirical, Groupon set itself up for this debacle.