Yeah, Groupon Sucks

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The extraordinarily successful group discounter Groupon succeeded in offending pretty much everybody with its Super Bowl ads, which spoofed worthy causes (for instance, actor Tim Hutton bemoaned the destruction of Tibet’s culture while celebrating the Groupon discounted curry fish at a Tibetan restaurant in Chicago), and then with an explanatory letter from its CEO claiming the spots were intended to bring attention to said causes (and that they actually made fun of Groupon).

(Image credit: Groupon logo)

And we wonder why consumers don’t like advertising anymore.

The nonsense surrounding Super Bowl is a rare respite from the reality of advertising; a welcome pause that lets agencies and their clients ignore all the unanswered, existential questions about the very premise on which advertising is based, and instead produce spots that have no purpose or redeeming quality other than being entertaining. They invent a wacky construct for the gig that encourages clients to waste millions while wasting our time rating and discussing their output.

So questioning whether or not the Groupon spots did anything for its sales or long-term respect/valuation of its brand are moot. They stood out from the clutter during the show (because they were so shockingly bad) and they stand out now because business types don’t understand how how the company (and its agency) could be so tone deaf. That wacky event construct actually assigns value to all this jabbering, so blog posts like this one end up in the clipping files of some PR flack as proof that the ad expenditure prompted “conversation” and that, in some absolute sense, that’s a good thing.

It’s rotten every which way you look at it.

I want to riff about how horrible Groupon must be, as evidenced by the bad choices for the spots and the smug, twisted lies of its CEO after they aired. If you’re a Groupon customer you help fund this crap. You support it. I know there’s an argument to be made that if a company provides a value and doesn’t otherwise break any laws doing so, then who cares if the management are going to heaven? It’s a valid POV; I just don’t agree with it. Our actions, however self-interested as they maybe should be, have implications for the community at large. We indirectly encourage Groupon’s behavior with our own purchase behavior, and those linkages deserve more consideration.

I could also riff about the inanity of VC-funded businesses, which have little connection with the real worlds of business or culture. Arguably, Groupon’s backers paid for the inane campaign, so it says as much about their poverty of imagination and discernment as it does about anything else. “It’s great branding,” some numbnut guru is probably happy to declare at the company’s offices; after all, its ad agency has developed some specialized expertise in producing distasteful, irritating marketing. So you could argue that the campaign says something not terribly complimentary about the VC backers of Groupon (as well as the company’s management).

No, I’ll give ’em all that. More power to them. No laws were broken, and bad taste isn’t a prosecutable offense. I worry what this and the Super Bowl noise in general says about the practice of advertising.

Consumers are busier, more cynical, and far less adventurous than they themselves care to admit; we’re also cheap and impatient, perhaps because none of us got past our early teenage years without having felt burned or abused by at least a few brand promises. Also, we talk to one another incessantly, vetting every iota of information we perceive against one another’s experience and the conclusions of our communities.

We stopped paying attention to ads a long time ago because they failed to add any useful content to the above-mentioned reality. In turn, advertising  defaulted to entertainment, at best, and usually didn’t accomplish much on that front, either. A vicious cycle was born: We pay less interest, so advertisers produce stuff that’s ever-less interesting (as in relevant, meaningful, or useful).

The Super Bowl is a unique animal, though. None of the realities and rules under which advertising rightfully labors all year long are lifted, briefly. Given the freedom to finally…one time each year…tell consumers whatever suits them, what do brands choose to do? Double-down on entertainment. It’s a carnival festival of bad communications.

Groupon’s spots are just one of many examples of this stupidity. Many campaigns started before the game and extend after it, all intended to creatively command and occupy consumers’ attention, only in order to tell them nothing that matters. The biggest platform ever is nothing more than a chance to do a particularly good job of producing the bad advertising that passes for marketing during the rest of the year.

It pisses me off, really. Advertising isn’t inherently disingenuous or disliked; we make it that way with stuff like Groupon’s spots, whether as producers or consumers. Ads could do so much more, if only agencies and their brands looked differently at the opportunity.

Image1: Wikipedia

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