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.


Ernest R.
Ernest R6 years ago

@ Lika S.. “Why fight for freedom and respect” The Viet Nam war was not for freedom and respect. Viet Nam did not threaten Americans or American freedom. The war was to prevent an already arranged free election that could have brought its present government into power. Check the history. @ Dennis C., You had three tours in Viet Nam. Didn’t you eventually realize that napalming burned innocent people alive , that Agent Orange was poisoning the country, that farm villages were being intentionally destroyed, that My Lai was NOT an isolated incident, that the war was a criminal act ? I served in Korea. I do not have to ask myself those questions.

RobynRobyn Brice
Robyn Vorsa6 years ago

In the words of Stan Lee, some things are just too tragic. I saw the ads and I thought they were in bad taste. There was a underlying smugness that I found offensive. Tibet is being oppressed, but hey that okay, it's a great place for a holiday.
Maybe that was not the tone they were meaning to go for, but what I saw was a bunch of over privileged people making light of the real tragedies taking place.

jane richmond
jane richmond7 years ago


Lika S.
Lika P8 years ago

I've always supported our soldiers, even if I didn't like the war. I also believe that as citizens of the planet, we need to be on a good code of conduct. Why fight for freedom and respect and then decide we don't have to return respect and poke at other's lack of freedom? Then we are not the heroes we want or need to be, but hypocritical world police instead. Groupon needs to hold themselves in Military standards. If they want hogwash, then don't complain about it.

Janis H.
Janis H.8 years ago

Dennis Cooney - first of all "thank you for serving our country" and I totally agree with you. the only "good" thing that came out of your experience was that the American people woke up and realized they were wrong in not backing our soldiers, never mind how they felt about the war, it was the soldiers that were hurt and demoralized. I have 2 sons that are soldiers. Again, thank you for serving and I agree with you about the advertising, free speech and all. I get it.

Ernie Miller
william Miller8 years ago

Nice comentary.

Dennis Cooney
Dennis Cooney8 years ago

Well now...I can see that none of you had anything better to do today than bitch about TV advertising. Sheesh, get a life!!
The high end advertising agencies will literally try anything to keep an account or make sales. View it for what it is....then get on with your lives........
Tell you what....I'll bitch about the so-called welcome home I received when I came home after the Vietnam war. No media coverage, no nothing. We did get verbal harassment, people threw rocks and bottles and called us "napalmers" and "baby killers......." My Commanding Officer told us NOT to wear our uniforms ashore. In my homeland......

Dennis C. Cooney, USN Retired, Vietnam Veteran, 3 tours

Claire M.
Claire M8 years ago

Nobody I know watches the Superbowl. I have no idea what Groupon is, but now that this is here I will look it up.

Kecia W.
Kecia A8 years ago

Maybe it's just me, but I saw the ads as mocking celebrities and ridiculing the average joe. People are hypocrites and these ads point it out. Stop animal cruelty while wearing a down coat. Recycle plastic, then go to the store and buy bottled water. Complain about emissions causing global warming and smog from the comfort of your SUV. Maybe that is why people are offended by the ads.

Monica K.
Monica K8 years ago

By watching the superbowl, whether it's for the football or the ads, you are supporting the NFL, the organization that holds rapists, murderers, drug addicts and monstrous sadists like Michael Vick up as heroes and allows them to become filthy rich. Football teaches these guys that they don't have to live by the same rules as the rest of society because they have a salable talent. I don't care how "exciting" the game or how amusing the commercials, I will not support the NFL in any way until they understand that they have to include human decency in their criteria of what makes a great football player.