retail news in context, analysis with attitude

by Kate McMahon

Sometimes, you can be clever by half. And fail exponentially.

Such is the case with Groupon, the hip site known for its irreverent humor, which could easily be dubbed Dumped On this week due to an avalanche of online criticism of its ill-conceived Super Bowl commercials.

In its first foray into national TV advertising, the nation’s number one online daily deals site seriously misjudged the public’s reaction to its “spoof” commercials, the immediate internet backlash and the failure of its lame response.

How immediate was backlash? The Steelers were still chasing the Pack when Twitter and the blogosphere erupted with complaints such as “detestable” and “offensive” and calls for members to resign from Groupon’s site.

Of the three commercials, the most incendiary featured actor Timothy Hutton lamenting the plight of the oppressed people of Tibet, saying “their very culture is in jeopardy.” Cut to a Chicago restaurant where he chirps “but they still whip up an amazing fish curry, and since 200 of us bought at we’re each getting $30 worth of Tibetan food for just $15.”

Trust me, in the pages of blog posts on this commercial, the offended far outnumbered those who found the parodies witty or cutting edge.

Said one: “If you’re pushing the boundaries, why not make fun of the Holocaust? Or kiddie-porn? Or domestic violence?”

Whoops, said Groupon. Lost in its multi-million dollar outlay on prime time was an intended tagline which encourages members to take the money they’ve saved and donate to such causes as Free Tibet and efforts to Save the Whales (Greenpeace) and end rain forest exploitation. According to its link, Groupon said it would make contributions to the designated charities as well.

As if that colossal “oops” wasn’t bad enough, CEO Andrew Mason finally responded on the company blog Monday afternoon, way late in the real-time world of the internet.

He said “the last thing we wanted to do was offend our customers” and back-pedaled into an explanation about wanting to raise awareness for Tibet and other causes.

Problem is, he never said this: “We goofed. We pushed it too far. We’re sorry.”

The lesson for all businesses - large and small, social media and retail, national manufacturers and independent grocers - is simple. If you make an error in judgment, just apologize and try to make amends.

One blogger ripped Mason for saying “We would never have run these ads if we thought they trivialized the causes …”

“Yet, they do, and you did. Nowhere in this blog entry does the word ‘sorry’ or ‘apology’ appear. Shame on you.”

Another blogger asked if this might be next ad: "Mubarak and his goons just killed 300 democracy activists in Egypt. Now we're slaughtering the prices at our favorite Egyptian restaurant with a coupon from"

While Groupon’s response to resigning customers did say “apologies if we have offended” and its PR team trotted out the continued support of Greenpeace and 50,000 new subscribers, the direct response from Mason fell way short. Retooling the ads to include the tagline isn’t enough. If you want to raise awareness for charitable organizations, do that. And as more than one blogger pointed out, fish curry isn’t exactly the lunch special in the Himalayan mountains.

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KC's View:
Excellent point. One of the downsides of being an edgy company, or at least a company that tries to have an edgy attitude, is that sometimes you fall off the edge.

When that happens, the only way to respond is to immediately stop digging the hole you find yourself in, apologize profusely for having screwed up, take full responsibility, and, if possible, finding way to make amends or reparations.

If Groupon had been smart, it would have done all those things before the Super Bowl postgame show was over.