Groupon’s Super Bowl Ads: Fumble Meets Philanthropy

Written by Jenn Breckenridge

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UPDATE 02/09/11: Groupon has just changed their Brazilian rainforest ad to include the Save The Money URL.

Besides the surprise win by the Packers, the talk of American towns today is the controversial ads run by Groupon before, during, and after the Super Bowl.

Saying that saving $50 on a Brazilian wax is more important than saving Brazilian rainforests, or that getting a cheap fish curry made by Tibetan refugees in Chicago is more important than their liberation from Chinese occupation, is obviously going to piss people off. But then again, that was the point.

Groupon knew what they were doing when they hired famed mockumentarian Christopher Guest to direct satirical cause-centric ads…they wanted to get people’s attention.

At Rainforest Action Network, direct action teams repel off of bridges and buildings–literally risking their lives–to drop banners that bring attention to deforestation and its lethal effects on communities, climate, and biodiversity. If you look at it from that perspective, a tasteless Super Bowl ad isn’t so risky after all. If the intention is getting folks talking about some of the most critical issues of our times on a day reserved for sports talk and PBR, I think Groupon got the job done.

Rainforest Action Network Groupon Screenshot

Where Groupon and their ad agency Crispin Porter + Bogusky fumbled was in not featuring the SaveTheMoney.org URL that directs viewers to non-profit organizations, like RAN, that are involved in the campaign. According to Groupon, that’s going to be handled in the coming week.

When the online coupon giant approached RAN about being part of its new Save The Money campaign, we were thrilled. Groupon, the social advocacy folks behind The Point, offered to promote donating to RAN in e-blasts to 80 cities across the country and then match those donations (out of their own pocketbook) up to $100,000.

From the creative actions we’re able to execute to the incredibly talented staff we’re able to bring on board, Rainforest Action Network depends on a healthy budget to defend forests around the world from rampant corporate gluttony. Let’s face it, going up against some of the world’s richest multinationals (Chevron, Cargill, Citi) ain’t no small task, so this Groupon deal was one RAN simply couldn’t pass up.

I asked our Executive Director Rebecca Tarbotton what she thought of the controversy. Here’s her take: “We’re in the business of changing the world and that sometimes calls for unusual measures. Groupon stepped out with controversial ads to draw attention to the most pressing issues of our time and risked criticism. That’s a role we’re pretty familiar with at RAN. If at the end of the day more people are inspired to take action, then it’s worth it.”

Screenshot of Tibet Groupon AdAt RAN, we all winced/gasped/sighed when we saw the Tibet ad. This was no Brazilian wax joke. We felt that Groupon crossed a line, riding edgy humor right over the edge of decency. Allies in the Tibetan independence movement had an interesting take on it though. Stephanie Brigden from Free Tibet was quoted on PRI’s The World as saying, “If it raises the profile of Tibet, that’s positive. People need to understand what’s going on.”

In Time magazine’s criticism of the campaign author James Poniewozik stated: “It’s not that viewers didn’t get that it was a joke. It’s that they saw it was an obnoxious joke.” What begs to be asked here is this: when are obnoxious jokes not a part of Super Bowl ads? The novel aspect of the Groupon ads is that the humor in question actually raises money for environmental and justice organizations, like us.

Whether you consider Groupon’s ads tongue-in-cheek or foot-in-mouth, they certainly have the online world deep in discussion of human rights, endangered species and the world’s forests…not the usual blog fodder the day after Super Bowl.

The next big question is whether the buzz around this controversy will lead to something positive. If you want to make sure that happens, I’ve got a URL that was missing from Liz Hurley’s Brazilian pitch: http://www.groupon.com/deals/rainforest-action-network.

8 Comments For This Post I'd Love to Hear Yours!

  1. Carra Cheslin says:

    Oh man, thank goodness someone is talking about this. I found the ad utterly revolting – to think that a company would actually think that it would improve their image to make an inappropriate joke regarding the legitimacy of rainforest conservation is horrifying to me. I was extremely upset that the commercial was allowed to be shown on national television.

  2. Jenn Breckenridge says:

    Hi Carra- For almost everyone (sans the Tibet activist community apparently), the Tibet Groupon ad was clearly out of bounds. I’d love to hear your thoughts on the exact aspect that you found inappropriate about the rainforest Groupon ad and why. Do you find Brazilian waxes “inappropriate” or do you find using humor around the topic of deforestation “inappropriate?”

  3. Mongcon says:

    Here’s the question I can’t get answered, and it is very simple. Did RAN and the Tibet Fund have the opportunity to review the ads in which they were featured and did they approve them? If they did, Groupon is off the hook. If not, Groupon and the groups they “used” have some splain’ to do.

  4. Mongcon says:

    I should be crystal clear. Did they have a chance to review the ads BEFORE they were aired and did they approve of what they saw?

  5. Jenn Breckenridge says:

    Hey there Mongcon- I can’t speak for the other orgs, but I can say that here at RAN we were able to review the script only for the rainforest ad before it aired. We had no access to the scripts of the other ads before they ran. We were under the impression that all the ads would direct folks to SaveTheMoney.org, which the initial versions that ran did not. The people at Groupon are really keen on making the fixes necessary to achieve the initial goals of raising money for some really kickass organizations. I mean, if you look at who they chose to raise funds for, it’s not your average bunch of non-profits, which I think is really cool. (Sorry if this sounds self-promotional, I just honestly love RAN and the other orgs they chose.) I hope all this controversy makes people realize how much they do care about these issues and that instead of getting upset, they funnel their passion into joining, volunteering, taking action, and donating to the organizations that are working to heal/fix/support/stand behind what’s really at stake here: people, animals, ecosystems, climate…basically the whole kit and caboodle of Planet Earth. P.S. If you want to roll with RAN, please go to http://ran.org/content/get-involved. Thx!

  6. Puxatawny Phil says:

    I think it is gross. Unless the ad specifically tells people how they can help stop deforestation AS WELL as save money on wax jobs, it’s weak. Boo!

  7. Jenn Breckenridge says:

    I hear ya Phil. We definitely wish the message was clear.

  8. Vanitha says:

    To try to capitalize on an act that is seen as luxurious in the Western world (women do not wax their legs in the Amazon), coupled with the intimate “sounds” coming from the woman, is culturally insensitive and an insult from Groupon’s part to the organizations that are truly focusing on the scientific aspects and livelihood development behind a global crisis such as deforestation. I think that if RAN’s groupon donation link “deal” was mentioned in the 30 second ad, that may have made a difference. Out of curiosity how much of a positive impact did Groupon make with the RAN donation deal?

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