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Groupon criticized for Super Bowl ads making light of Tibet, whales, the rainforest

Groupon's Super Bowl ads haven't gone over very well so far, particularly one spot dealing with Tibet and Tibetan food.

On Monday, Groupon CEP Andrew Mason attempted to justify the commercials in a blog post titled "Our Super Bowl Ads, and How We're Helping These Causes."

Mason writes, "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?"

During the NFL championship game Sunday, the online coupon company aired three ads that featured actors speaking about pressing environmental and social issues before turning the focus of their words toward getting a great deal on food or tourist attractions and a body waxing.

The advertisement that has caused the most backlash for Chicago-based Groupon so far is one featuring Timothy Hutton and Tibet.

In the 30-second commercial directed by Christopher Guest, Hutton says that "The people of Tibet are in trouble, their very culture is in jeopardy. But they still whip up an amazing fish curry, and since 200 of us bought a Groupon.com, we're each getting $30 worth of Tibetan food for just $15 at Himalayan Restaurant in Chicago."

Many viewers were angry and felt the ad inappropriately made light of the Chinese occupation of Tibet.

In another spot, Cuba Gooding Jr. pulls the same serious to light-hearted flip with whales and whale watching, saying about whales: "Today their numbers are dwindling. Somebody's got to save them. But it's more fun watching them jumping, playing. And since 100 of us bought at Groupon.com, we're each getting an $86 whale watching cruse for just $49."

Elizabeth Hurley, in the third Groupon commercial, says "The rainforest is irreplaceable, yet rampant deforestation is threatening this natural treasure. But not all deforestation is bad. And since 100 of us bought at Groupon.com we're all saving 50% on a Brazilian wax at Completely Bare in New York City."

Each ad ends with the words "Save the money, unlock great deals in your town. Groupon.com."

Twitter and Facebook were flooded with comments lambasting Groupon for the ads, which cost millions of dollars to produce and air during the U.S.'s biggest advertising event of the year.

Mason, in a blog post yesterday, explained the motivation behind the ads as was a bit of a play on Groupon being born from a philanthropy website, thepoint.com.

"When groups of people act together to do something, it's usually to help a cause," Mason wrote. "With Groupon, people act together to help themselves by getting great deals. So what if we did a parody of a celebrity-narrated, PSA-style commercial that you think is about some noble cause (such as "Save the Whales"), but then it's revealed to actually be a passionate call to action to help yourself  (as in "Save the Money")?"

Along with the ads, Groupon launched a website called savethemoney.org,which pairs each advertisement with links to donate to organizations that are helping the cause the commercials mention.

Mason said that Groupon will match donations to the real-world organizations to each cause, of up to $100,000, for the Tibet Fund, Greenpeace and the Rainforest Action Network.

But the attempt to raise money for the three respective organizations were not mentioned in the television ads themselves, leading many to not even mention that aspect of the campaign when criticizing them.

Phil Rosenthal, the Chicago Tribune's media critic, blasted the ads writing, "sensitivity, empathy and taste? They're at least half-off at Groupon."

As Rosenthal reported, CNBC's sports business journalist Darren Rovell joked on Twitter, "after their Super Bowl commercial, Groupon's valuation has gone from $15 billion to $15."

One Twitter user, @jung10, wrote: "Groupon Exploits Tibet for Superbowl Commercial" Titled differently, this would make a perfect Onion piece. #sicksad." 

Danny Sullivan, the editor of the site Search EngineLand, seemed a bit dumbfounded by the ordeal, writting on Twitter, "still don't even get why groupon, a viral success story, needed a superbowl ad. waste of money & PR."

RELATED:

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-- Nathan Olivarez-Giles

twitter.com/nateog

Video: Groupon Superbowl add "Save The Money - Tibet" featuring actor Timothy Hutton. Credit: Groupon via YouTube

 
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