Media

Groupon chief tries to explain controversial Super Bowl ads (poll)

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As far as chief executives go, Andrew Mason is as informal as they come. But he just posted a serious non-apology on the company’s blog to explain why Groupon ran its Super Bowl ad, which he acknowledged has had a negative overall response.

The Super Bowl commercial started out serious, highlighting the troubles of Tibet’s people and how their culture is in jeopardy. But then it switched from a Timothy Hutton (above right) voice over to a shot of the actor eating at a Tibetan restaurant in Chicago. He raves about their amazing fish curry and the great deal he got on it via Groupon. It was a jarring transition, and bunch of perhaps overly serious people have raked Groupon over the coals for its insensitivity in trivializing Tibet’s plight.

It was a criminal misfire in humor, considering that Groupon spent around $3 million on the ad. Audiences reacted with puzzlement, anger, or laughter. It’s worth noting that Groupon’s business, where it offers discount deals in local regions for a limited time, depends upon the good will of the buying public.

In the post, Mason said he wanted to “take a crack at explaining why we created this campaign.” He said that the company took the causes it highlighted — saving Tibet via the Tibet Fund — extremely seriously. He noted that in the company’s short two years, it has raised millions of dollars for charities like Donors Choose and Kiva.

Mason said, “Our ads highlight the often trivial nature of stuff on Groupon when juxtaposed against bigger world issues, making fun of Groupon.” The problem was that the message of the commercial was sufficiently vague that many felt like it trivialized efforts to save Tibet.

Mason added, “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?”

Mason (pictured right) is perhaps the most unguarded CEO I’ve ever seen. At the Digital Life Design conference in Munich, Mason showed up in blue jeans and a casual short-sleeved shirt. He went on to call himself a “corporate douche bag” for not being able to say more about why Groupon turned down Google’s $6 billion acquisition offer in December.

But the serious blog post is probably a good move, given Groupon’s serious intentions. Perhaps the post doesn’t go far enough because he doesn’t actually apologize for the ad; he merely explains Groupon’s good intentions and how “the last thing we wanted was to offend our customers — it’s bad business and it’s not where our hearts are.”

Mason correctly points out that the ad, if misunderstood, could seriously damage the perception of Groupon as a brand and actually hurt, rather than help its business. This means that, however whimsical Mason is as a person, he knows how to be a good CEO. The company took a risk. It got egg on its face and now it has to explain itself. Hopefully, this won’t make Mason gun-shy about backing future humorous ads.

The interesting result is that the ad has caught everyone’s attention, and Mason is now trying to steer everyone over to SaveTheMoney.org to make a donation, which Groupon will match. It is quite possible that this ad may raise far more money than a completely serious ad might have. Now what’s the lesson in that? Does it mean you can be controversial if your cause is a good one and it deserves attention?

Check out the commercial below and tell us in the poll/comments whether you think the ad was appropriate or not.

http://www.hulu.com/embed/psBIBQhvBrMQKRLUe5E1ng

Online Surveys – Zoomerang.com