Humor and Activism: Why Didnít the Groupon Ads Work?
As has already been noted here in Care2, like many people watching the Super Bowl, I was initially gratified by the Groupon ad that began with (what I assumed was) a somber reminder of the perilous state of Tibet’s people and culture. Ah, I thought, in the midst of this inconsequential folderol, a moment of true gravitas! That sure puts things into perspecti….. Before I could finish the thought, the ad cut to the now notorious well-appointed Tibetan restaurant where the monumentally clueless Timothy Hutton character accepts “an amazing fish curry” from a no-doubt-oppressed Tibetan waiter. Now, Groupon founder has pulled the ads, citing their pervasive offensiveness. So, what went so badly wrong?
When “Why” Is Not the Question
Perhaps least of all, the ads simply didn’t work as ads. Super Bowl commercials, as just about everyone knows, are often the most expensive and carefully considered of the year. This campaign, which in addition to Hutton featured Elizabeth Hurley and Cuba Gooding, Jr. and was directed by the laudable Christopher Guest of Spinal Tap and Best in Show fame, was highly anticipated. However, ads are by nature creatures of commerce: their raison d’être is not to amuse, titillate or educate but to sell. As Mason ruefully notes, an ad should not require an explanation. These did – and that rendered them ineffective.
What Were They Thinking?
Mason, in a pre-furor blog, revealed his concept for the campaign, which was created and executed by über-agency Crispin Porter + Bogusky (if you visit their website, you can see other examples of their work, including an hilarious piece for Best Buy featuring Ozzy Osborne and Justin Bieber). If I may paraphrase, Mason thought it would be clever to spoof the practice of celebrities hawking worthy causes by making the cause… YOU! So yeah, okay, there are a lot of crises that need your support, but maybe you need to support – meaning indulge — yourself first! Save some money (by using Groupon) on that Brazilian wax, that luxury cruise, that tasty fish dish, and if you have anything left over, then maybe you can consider giving some of it away. Hey, feel good and do good at the same time – it’s a win-win, right?
What Comes First?
It’s really hard to know where to begin about how wrong this is. First, the ads suggest that the world’s great (meaning dire, urgent, critical) causes can be considered afterthoughts. Of course, nobody is recommending that one deprive oneself of shelter, sustenance and even comfort in order to address one of the planet’s many crises but in the grand continuum of purpose and meaning, perhaps acquiring the perfect entrée is somewhere below fighting the extinction of a majestic species.
There’s a smugness, a smarminess about the tone of the ads – and the slogan, “save the money,” doesn’t even hint at anything beyond its narrow scope – the ads aren’t self-mocking, as Mason suggests and even might have hoped; they’re self-congratulatory. The implication is: Yes, the world has problems, big problems, but you don’t need to bother – you have an appointment with Sven the masseuse!
Show Me the Money!
It’s disturbingly ironic that one of the spokesactors in the Groupon ads is Cuba Gooding, Jr., purveyor of the famously iconic line, “Show me the money!” It’s disturbingly ironic that the ads aired during Super Bowl, that pageant of Superman as super producer of revenue.
Ads and products and self-indulgent lifestyles are all about the money – causes require something more of us: donations, yes, but commitment, courage and the willingness to give and to sacrifice beyond our pocketbooks. And if we don’t, all the money in the world won’t be able to replace what has been lost.
When Humor Works
As I contemplated what all of this meant, I remembered, years ago, when Mel Brooks suggested using the song “Springtime for Hitler” as a protest against a proposed American Nazi Party march planned for a Chicago suburb that is home to a large population of Holocaust survivors.
Of course, the notion was just too radical to be implemented but the idea intrigued me — the idea that the song could cast the marchers in a ridiculous light and in doing so, deprive them of importance and power. The worst thing you can do to Nazis (or racists or homophobes or [add your own category]) is laugh at them.
Humor as protest works when it’s fueled by truth, anger and wit. When one uses humor to honestly zero in on one’s own foibles or the absurdities or tragedies of a situation, then the ensuing laughter can become medicine. But when humor is used to subvert the very thing it pretends to support, well, that’s just not funny – it simply doesn’t work.
In Mason’s initial defense of the ads he pointed out that the Groupon website contained links for donations to organizations that work for Tibetan liberation, endangered species and rainforest protection.
My suggestion? Let’s tell Groupon to donate the sum they spent on the ad campaign, and CP+B the money they earned, to the causes those ads so shamelessly exploited.