The Big Picture

Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
on entertainment and media

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Groupon explains Super Bowl ad misfires, tries to make good

February 7, 2011 |  3:38 pm

Groupon, the group discount website, found itself in the unenviable position of Monday morning quarterbacking--trying to explain, one day later, how its Super Bowl ads misfired so badly.

Groupon founder Andrew Mason explained in a post on the website Monday afternoon that the online coupon company had meant to poke fun at itself and at "shameless self promotion" in most ads, not at the downtrodden Tibetan people, threatened Brazilian rain forests or endangered whales.

Many viewers thought the irony misfired and, instead, seemed to make light of causes like freedom for Tibet and the rain forests in Brazil. Several critics rated the ads--in which spokesman quickly jumped from a sociopolitical issue to a bargain available from Groupon--as the worst to air during Sunday's big game.

Mason said in his post that his company's intention had been to raise awareness for Groupon and for the causes, in hopes that people would contribute. "That’s why organizations like Greenpeace, BuildOn, the Tibet Fund and the Rainforest Action Network all decided to throw their support behind the campaign (read Greenpeace’s blog post here)," he wrote.

In fact, the nonprofit organizations approved the scripts for the spots in advance, though they did not see the final editing cuts because of the need to make the deadline for broadcast, a Groupon spokeswoman told the Big Picture.

Groupon's three ads featured celebrity spokespeople--actor Tim Hutton, model Elizabeth Hurley and actor Cuba Gooding Jr.--telling the stories, respectively of Tibet, Brazilian forests and whaling. Mid-ad the celebs then turned to pitches for the online coupon service--noting you could get a big break at a Himalayan restaurant in Chicago, a New York salon offering Brazilian bikini wax and on whale tours.

At that point, particularly in the Tibet ad, you could almost hear the needle screeching across the vinyl album. Non sequitur alert! 

"Our ads highlight the often trivial nature of stuff on Groupon when juxtaposed against bigger world issues, making fun of Groupon," Mason wrote, by way of explanation. "Why make fun of ourselves? Because it’s different -– ads are traditionally about shameless self promotion, and we’ve always strived to have a more honest and respectful conversation with our customers."

When you have to explain a joke that costs you millions to produce, you know something went terribly wrong. The pivot from altruism to commercialism seemed earnest or awkward, at best. It failed to take clear enough aim at crass commercialism.

Mason used his message Monday to try to return the focus to the charitable organizations Groupon said it set out to help. "To that point, if the ads affected you, we hope you’ll head over to and make a donation (which we’ll match)," Mason wrote, "we’re hoping to raise a lot of money."

He concluded with this: "The last thing we wanted was to offend our customers -– it’s bad business and it’s not where our hearts are."

--James Rainey

Twitter: latimesrainey