Posts filed under ‘Advertising’

Pile On Groupon

Groupon: time for a lot of PR and a new ad

The “fastest growing company ever” owns today’s fastest spreading controversy. Groupon has triggered outrage with Super Bowl ads that appear to mock serious issues, primarily China’s occupation of Tibet. Oscar-winner Timothy Hutton begins the key commercial by acknowledging Tibet’s woes only to segue into the virtues of fish curry from a Tibetan restaurant purchased at a discount thanks to Groupon. The ad’s tagline is “save the money.”

On the face of it, the ad appears to be a sophomoric satire linking a company’s everyday offerings with a global crisis, a la Kenneth Cole’s widely criticized tweets about the Egyptian uprising. Only later has it been explained that Save the Money is a legitimate cause-based program, not an iteration of Groupon’s discounting premise. The ad is meant to simultaneously spoof celebrity sanctimony and Groupon’s viral bargains. The problem is that Groupon is too clever for us. Its CEO, Andrew Mason, confirms as much in a next-day blog response that The Wall Street Journal calls a “non-apology apology.”

Groupon seems to be joining other web ventures that proved their clout with a Super Bowl sponsorship, although turning down Google’s $6 billion buyout is a much cooler demonstration. Amending a media mix (television now in addition to online) entails reaching out to new audiences as well as re-connecting with current ones. It calls for a basic message, not an obscure one made under the assumption that everyone already grasps the company. It can have humor–a Super Bowl advertising staple–but it must use that multimillion-dollar window to display the brand. So beyond their controversy, Groupon’s ads miss the mark as effective communications. Articles on the ads have cited the agency, Crispin Porter + Bogusky, as being known for edgy work. This invokes Al and Laura Ries’ warnings in The Fall of Advertising & The Rise of PR about shops that are more focused on artistic expression than marketing fundamentals.

Groupon has deepened its self-inflicted wounds with CEO Mason’s off-putting response on his company blog. He insists that the ads support real social causes (impossible to tell at first glance). He then points fingers at other offensive Super Bowl ads, primarily those that objectify women. He defends his ad agency, citing their precedent for irreverence with their commercials for In short, Mason acts upset that people are upset with his company. He is going to need a lot more PR, an infusion of contrition, and a new ad:


A “backstage” setting with lights and cables visible. A clapperboard fills the screen, scrawled on its face: GROUPON “WE’RE SORRY” AD.

Clapper Loader (off screen): Groupon, take two!

The clapperboard claps and is pulled out of the shot, revealing CEO Andrew Mason sitting in a tall director’s chair. Standing around him are actors Timothy Hutton, Cuba Gooding Jr., and Elizabeth Hurley.

Mason: Hello, I’m Andrew Mason, CEO of Groupon. By now, you’ve probably heard about our Super Bowl ads that offended many people who thought we were making fun of important social issues such as human rights in Tibet.

We’re sorry. The ads were confusing and sent the wrong message. The right message is that Save the Money-dot-org is a real program soliciting donations and building awareness for worthy causes around the world. Groupon supports this program because while we’re working to save you money locally, we’re also thinking globally. Please visit Save the Money-dot-org to learn more and to give. Thank you for your understanding.

Timothy Hutton nervously leans toward Mason.

Hutton: Do you want us to say anything?

Mason (pleasant): No.

Hutton straightens back up. The foursome smiles and waves at the camera.

FADE IN: Groupon logo with titles beneath:



POSTSCRIPT 1: Groupon CEO Andrew Mason blogs a straight-forward apology on Thursday, Feb. 10, and pulls the ads.

POSTSCRIPT 2: Groupon fires Crispin, Porter + Bogusky with CEO Andrew Mason saying they placed “too much trust” in the ad agency. CP+B says it was simply end of project work and wishes Groupon well.


February 8, 2011 at 3:02 pm Leave a comment

More Lawsuits Than Brand X!

The New York Times reports a growing phenomenon in the marketing world: companies suing their rivals for claims made in attack ads–or comparative advertising, if one opts for the gentler term. Pantene vs. Dove, Iams vs. Science Diet, AT&T vs. Verizon, and Campbell Soup vs. Progresso are listed as examples of ad wars that have prompted legal action.

Aggrieved companies’ recourses range from complaints to the National Advertising Division of the Council of Better Business Bureaus to lawsuits under 1946’s Lanham Act for false advertising. Verizon’s red and blue map comparing its nationwide 3G coverage to AT&T’s is one of most notable recent cases. AT&T has sued, claiming that Verizon’s graphic of patchy coverage implies that it has no cellphone service whatsoever in the map’s blank expanses.

Admittedly, I enjoyed the Verizon commercial with a dejected AT&T smartphone arriving at the Island of Misfit Toys from 1964’s “Rudolph, the Red Nose Reindeer.” I didn’t run out and buy a new phone; I’m just a child of the ’60s who got the joke.

The real issue: at a time when all advertising is being questioned for its effectiveness, measurability and ROI, how much significance do attack/comparison ads have? Going a step further, do the ads actually diminish the brand’s reputation and dignity? (Now there’s some serious ROI.)

In The Journal of Economics and Management Strategy, three European academicians assert that comparative advertising signals “quality” when a market entrant takes on an incumbent brand. They conclude that the known threat of lawsuits lends credence to the entrant’s comparisons for the very fact that they are being made under such litigious conditions.

In contrast, AdWeek columnist Barbara Lippert takes a dim view of side-by-side comparison ads. She lambasts Dove for an ad that equates “soap” with “scum” and deems such product comparisons a throwback to the advertising of 50 years ago.

Are the complaints and lawsuits ultimately counterproductive when they produce negative publicity? (And they do.) The NYT article presents expert conclusions that the Campbell/Progresso legal battle ended up driving away customers for the entire ready-to-eat soup market.

Inevitably, the issuer of an attack/comparison ad is acknowledging that the rival brand is #1. It is always a position of weakness. Witness Buick’s campaign for the LaCrosse that morphs its vehicle with the Lexus 350. Blatant and desperate. Barbara Lippert points out two campaigns where also-rans at least showed creativity and humor: Avis’ “We Try Harder” and Apple’s “Get a Mac.” But did Avis ever beat Hertz? No. Have Macs outsold PCs? No, but their overall sales are up; however, some attribute this not to the ads but to a halo effect from the iPod along with Microsoft’s self-inflicted wounds from Vista.

I work across the marketing mix, but the PR guy in me trumps the ad man on this issue. Attack/comparison ads inherently reinforce perceptions of inferiority and can stir even greater negativity with counter-claims and lawsuits. At the end of the NYT article, James P. Othmer sums up the shortfalls of the attack ad mentality: “they’re not thinking about what consumers want to hear — they’re just talking at conference tables about how to strike back…”

What do consumers want to hear? Nasty ads and subsequent reports of lawsuits don’t top the list.

POSTSCRIPT: Enfamil maker Mead Johnson loses in a lawsuit brought by private-label baby formula maker PBM. The federal court ruled that Enfamil ads constitued false advertising by suggesting that cheaper baby formula could impair babies’ health and development. The judgement: $13.5 million.

November 25, 2009 at 4:28 pm 2 comments


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