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Groupon’s Controversial Social Critique

2011 February 9
by Julie Clawson

As posted at the God’s Politics blog –

I admit, I only watch the Super Bowl for the commercials. Yes, it’s crass and consumerist, but seeing how marketers decide to spend millions of dollars in an attempt to manipulate me each year holds some sort of strange appeal (twisted as it may be). One could say that it’s entertainment at its finest.

The buzz after the big game usually revolves around the commercials — the best and worst of the night, so to speak. This year all of us Gen Xers were amused and reminded of our own childhoods by Volkswagen’s “force” using kid. And the nation was stirred to sentimental working class patriotism by Chrysler’s homage to Detroit (as they sold a luxury car no working-class family could ever afford). But the award for “Most Controversial” went to Groupon’s satirical public service announcements turned coupon selling spot.

Three ads were aired which turned the celebrity charity spokesperson shtick on its head, but it is the Tibet one that has our country all in a dither. The commercial starts out portraying the people of Tibet and alludes to the cultural oppression they are facing, it then switches to a celebrity spokesperson explaining how he was able to save money at a Tibetan restaurant by purchasing a Groupon coupon. As the Groupon blog explains:

The gist of the concept is this: When groups of people act together to do something, it’s usually to help a cause. With Groupon, people act together to help themselves by getting great deals. So what if we did a parody of a celebrity-narrated, PSA-style commercial that you think is about some noble cause (such as “Save the Whales”), but then it’s revealed to actually be a passionate call to action to help yourself (as in “Save the Money”)?

Since we grew out of a collective action and philanthropy site ( and ended up selling coupons, we loved the idea of poking fun at ourselves by talking about discounts as a noble cause. So we bought the spots, hired mockumentary expert Christopher Guest to direct them, enlisted some celebrity faux-philanthropists, and plopped down three Groupon ads before, during, and after the biggest American football game in the world.

But apparently most of America didn’t quite understand the joke. The Groupon blog is full of comments from offended viewers, and Twitter and Facebook are full of posts asking people to boycott Groupon for the offensive commercials. The general response is “I’m offended that Groupon used the suffering of the people of Tibet as a way to sell coupons.”

But as I see it, most people are simply missing the point. Granted, the Super Bowl is a time when people expect to be entertained by ads, not forced to interpret social commentary. But the erudite and self-deprecatory style of mockumentary director Christopher Guest is exactly what they were given with the ad. Groupon took the basic style of American celebrity charity and showed it as the selfish act that it generally is. Charity in America is unfortunately often not an act of selfless compassion, but instead is a way for people to feel good about themselves or gain something in the act. We don’t just give money to charities; we hold expensive galas and silent auctions that reward us for our act. Politicians and celebrities earn brownie points for telling the world how much they give. Charity, for many Americans, always is an act of self-aggrandizement at the expense of suffering people.

And Groupon called us (and themselves) out on that blatant hypocrisy. In my book, it was a brilliantly done harsh critique of American culture. And America missed the point. People who would generally care less about Tibet, or who would have been offended if a political/leftist/socialist “Free Tibet” ad had been aired, are now acting all offended on behalf of Tibet. Groupon showed us that the people we should be offended at are ourselves, but that was not a criticism people were ready to hear as they stared at the screen mumbling, “Here we are now, entertain us.”

I get that Groupon, like any other business, is out to make a profit. I don’t ascribe anything near to pure motives to them in this whole controversy. They are making donations to the very causes they portrayed in their satirical ads, and at the same time are making money from those ads by selling coupons. I don’t know if their whole purpose was the controversy. As with the commercial itself, the motives involved seemed to be a multi-layered mix of commercialism, commentary, and controversy.

I can’t tell people what they should or should not be offended by, but I do think it is worth pausing a moment to consider the message of the Groupon ads. Why do we give to charity? Do we support causes for the sake of the cause or for our own sake? What are we more passionate about — helping others or helping ourselves?


5 Responses leave one →
  1. February 9, 2011

    love it, Julie.

    The vast majority of Americans do not understand satire, which is why it’s on cable or cancelled all too quickly. There’s not enough patience for it, in my opinion. We don’t stop and think, and we certainly indulge sin’s nature as we refuse to stop and think what the plank in our own eye might look like….

    the commercials were great social commentary, and we can either now stand to look them in the face and look for our own error being highlighted, or just quickly point the finger and shut down.

    Thanks for the article. Makes me want to steal some time and delve into it. Anything for a few minutes spent studying our culture.

  2. February 9, 2011

    I appreciate your post – if only because I now at least understand a bit what the fuss is about. I don’t watch football – not even when the only publicly owned football team is playing and most certainly not during the Super Bowl. I don’t think I’ll ever understand the appeal of the commercials nor the kinds of consumerism that they contribute to (as you alluded to). Don’t even get me started on the vast sums of money spent on professional sports (their players, teams, and owners) as a corollary to our culture’s tendency to overvalue so few and undervalue so many.

    The kerfluffle over the ad is certainly only one piece to a very messed up window on our culture.

  3. Redcrosswood permalink
    February 13, 2011

    The selfishness of the donor is played to by many religious organizations which temp potential donors
    to variouis levels of “generosisty” by offering “gifts” for donations. I think Groupon was righton.

  4. Autumnal Harvest permalink
    February 13, 2011

    I think you’re reading your own reaction to the ad into the intended message of the ad. Satire can be tricky to get, but I don’t see any sign in the ad the Groupon is calling out either themselves of American culture for blatant hypocrisy in these ads, or engaging any any harsh critique of American culture (the quote from Groupon that you cite doesn’t even seem to claim that it is). The ads seem like they’re supposed to be funny because you think they’re about one thing, and then they turn out to actually be about something else. I can see why your response to the ad would be to think about hypocrisy in charity and American culture, but you’re probably not the target audience for these ads, to put it mildly.

    If you’re right about what Groupon was trying to communicate, then they would have to be almost incomprehensibly stupid. Basically, you’re saying that a business decided to spend millions of dollars on an advertisement to say “Hey, Americans! You’re a bunch of hypocrites, and our business model is based on exploiting that hypocrisy so that we can make a bunch of money, and you can feel good about yourself without making any real difference. Now, uh, give us more money.” I don
    ‘t see any motives for this that would make any sense. You say that the motices seem to be a mix of “commercialism, commentary, and controversy,” but it’s bad commercialism and unhelpful controversy to insult your target audience and portray your basic business model as hypocritical, and businesses don’t generally spend millions of dollars on superbowl ads for commentary.

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