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Groupon faces backlash from rights groups over Super Bowl ads

Spots made light of Tibet, nature

By Mae Anderson
Associated Press / February 8, 2011

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NEW YORK — Online coupon site Groupon Inc.’s first foray into Super Bowl advertising aimed for humor but instead struck a raw nerve with viewers and human rights groups for mocking serious social issues.

In one commercial, Timothy Hutton says “the people in Tibet are in trouble, their culture is in jeopardy,’’ as pictures of Tibet are shown on the screen. The punch line? It turns out he’s talking about a fish curry deal groupon.com offered.

The ad, which debuted during the biggest night in advertising, when spots go for $3 million for 30 seconds, sparked widespread negative reaction on Twitter and Facebook.

According to research firm Alterian’s “Buzz Bowl,’’ which measures online activity, Groupon was among the five most-discussed advertisers online. But the buzz was bad, with 13 percent of conversations classified as “negative’’ and 6 percent “positive.’’

The Groupon ads weren’t the only ones that some felt went too far.

Homeaway.com, a vacation rental website, ran an ad that showed people trying to fit into a crowded hotel room in a testing lab, resulting in a “test-baby’’ being flung against a glass window.

While slapstick humor is always common among Super Bowl ads the “test baby’’ gag crossed a line suggesting child abuse for some viewers.

In Groupon’s pregame ad, Cuba Gooding Jr. decried the plight of whales, but then promoted a groupon.com deal for a whale watching cruise. In a post-game commercial, Elizabeth Hurley lamented deforestation, but then discussed a deal on a Brazilian wax.

All the ads pointed viewers to www.savethemoney.org, which encourages visitors to donate to each of the charities related to the causes: including Rainforest Action Network, Tibet Fund, Greenpeace, and buildOn.

But that message was lost, said Laura Ries, president of Ries & Ries, an Atlanta-based marketing strategy firm.

“Most people will learn about it after they saw the ads and think it’s a reaction to negative PR,’’ she said. But she added a bigger problem with the campaign is that it didn’t really make clear what groupon.com, which offers hundreds of daily discounts in 500 local markets, is all about.

Some human rights organizations spoke out against the ad because it makes light of the situation in Tibet, which has been controlled by China for 60 years. The Chinese government’s handling of Tibet is frequently protested by human rights groups for political repression.

The negative reaction is a black eye for the two-year-old start-up, based in Chicago, which has grown quickly, spawned numerous imitators, and enjoyed investor enthusiasm. It rejected a $6 billion takeover bid from Google Inc. last year.