If you had any doubt whether the tech industry was back, Super Bowl ads from sites that get you half off a bikini wax like Living Social and Groupon were a million-dollar gamble to prove otherwise. Unfortunately, in Groupon’s case, its quirky sense of humor didn’t translate to half-time crowds. They weren’t alone, of course. Users on Hulu picked Salesforce.com and GoDaddy.com for the worst of the night. But Groupon appears to have invoked the most public ire for its “Save the Money” campaign. The joke being rather than saving noble causes like the whales, or the rain forests, or Tibet, Groupon lets you save money. The ads started out sincere and ended with the twist. In the spot, directed by Christopher Guest, Timothy Hutton told the camera, “The people of Tibet are in trouble, their very culture is in trouble … but they still whip up an amazing fish curry. And since 200 of us bought a Groupon.com, we’re each getting $30 worth of Tibetan food for $15 at Himalayan Restaurant in Chicago!” Selling crass consumption during the Super Bowl? Why we never! Seriously, were people tuning in to hear heartfelt pleas to help the people of Tibet and the rain forests? Or just about to write a check to save the whales, when their beer-soaked sensibilities were deeply offended?
We would like to offer a hearty “Well played” to Groupon CEO Andrew Mason for hiring Timothy Hutton as a spokesperson and still being the most talked-about ad of the evening. He also got the rain forests, whales, and Tibet mentioned during the Super Bowl. Sure, the unsubscribe-to-Groupon campaign might hurt before its impending IPO, but all press is good press.
Except in China. As the venture-capital-backed Groupon is aggressively expanding its services and staff in mainland China, users on Weibo (China’s answer to Tumblr) critiqued the ad, although for insensitivity to China, not Tibet. A user named cnbuff410 asked, “Groupon … you play a ‘free Tibet’ advertisement during the Super Bowl … do you actually want to enter the Chinese market?”
The restaurant featured in the ad, Himalayan Restaurant & Bar, is very real and is located in the Chicago suburb of Niles. They are currently not answering the phone, but talking to CNN last night, co-owner Vivek Kunwar said, “When we saw it, it was an ‘uh-oh’ moment even for me.” He also claims that the restaurant was not involved with the shoot. Interestingly, the restaurant was also just featured in the restaurant TV show Check, Please. Although this probably wasn’t the “Groupon effect” Kunwar was hoping for, hopefully the restaurant still got its money’s worth, which isn’t always the case.
*Additional reporting by Nick Kindelsperger.