Groupon raised a whole lot of brows on Sunday when it released its triumvirate of satirical Super Bowl commercials -- one before, one during and one after. Each saw a celebrity talk about a serious global issue before delving into how it served them specifically, with Timothy Hutton talking Tibet, Elizabeth Hurley discussing the rainforests and Cuba Gooding Jr. dishing about whales.
The seemingly callous commercials sent Twitter and the rest of the Internet abuzz with criticism, but there's a bit of a catch: Behind what many have seen to be poor humor is a big philanthropic drive to help each cause, and it was all filtered through the mockumentary vision of one Mr. Christopher Guest.
As the Groupon blog explains, they decided it was time to enter the world of television ads to help increase the reach of their website. Rather than just putting out commercials on any ol' day of the year, Groupon decided to reach for the stars and premiere ads during the Super Bowl. As they explain, "Our peculiar taste in humor made it really hard for outside agencies to come up with concepts we liked." However, Crispin Porter + Bogusky came up with a pitch the site loved. In Groupon's words:
Unfortunately, most people didn't see Groupon as poking fun of themselves, especially with the choice they aired during the Super Bowl -- Timothy Hutton's Tibet clip. Furthermore, the ads didn't reveal that the site was hoping to help these causes. They're raising money for each cause in their "PSA Parodies," and will match donations up to $100,000 for the three featured charities -- Rainforest Action Network, buildOn and the Tibet Fund. On top of that, the site is prepared to offer credits up to $100,000 for those who contribute to Greenpeace.
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 (ThePoint.com) 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.
Visions of Guest mockumentaries and charitable donations do lend a different light to the commercials, but as AV Club asks, "If a joke has to be explained, it's not that great of a joke. But does it make a difference if, once the joke is explained, it's pretty funny?"