Groupon’s Super Bowl Ads: Fumble Meets Philanthropy

By Rainforest Action Network

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 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: