Update: Groupon has pulled the controversial ad campaign described here.
I’m a big fan of Christopher Guest. He has wrote and directed several great films, popularizing the “mockumentary” genre. This is Spinal Tap is one of his highly-acclaimed films. He has also directed many commercials, some of which feature his regular troupe of actors, those appearing in films like Best in Show and Waiting for Guffman. Chris was behind the 2010 census commercials, which also appeared during a Super Bowl.
This year, Christopher Guest directed the controversial Groupon ads. In spots that begin as if they were promoting celebrity-endorsed charities, the actors reveal that the sentiment behind their appearance is related to saving money on a frivolous deal. Saving 50% at a Himalayan restaurant may be a great deal for those who have the money in the first place, but perhaps setting the audience up for a sincere plea to help the people of Tibet was tasteless.
Groupon, its ad agency, and Guest developed a series of commercials playing on this theme. In addition to an ad featuring Timothy Hutton in a Himalayan restaurant, Cuba Gooding, Jr. feigned saving the whales in favor of saving money on a whale-watching excursion and Elizabeth Hurley began to impress upon the Super Bowl audience the importance of stopping deforestation but changed direction to extol a discount on Brazilian waxing.
Usually, Christopher Guest’s offensiveness is lighthearted or silly; the juxtaposition of the idea that celebrities often use their voices and popularity to bring attention to an important issue with the idea that you can save a few bucks off of your exotic dinner could be too dry for a mainstream audience. I think the subject of celebrity endorsement is perfect for a guest-style mockumentary — or at least a Saturday Night Live sketch (Guest has written many), but in the ad agency’s attempt to entertain a mainstream audience, they missed the mark by far.
Here are some reactions from Twitter:
- “I feel bad for poor Timothy Hutton. That will probably kill what is left of his career.”
- “For shame, Timothy Hutton, for shame.” (@SeanCamoni)
- “First person to make me a ‘Timothy Hutton Hates Tibet’ t-shirt wins my undying appreciation.” (@mattsinger)
- “I don’t think the @groupon spot was in poor taste. They just reminded people of something in a way they didn’t wanna be reminded. With humor.” (@JoeWescott)
What do you think of the ads? Here is the first commercial, featuring actor Timothy Hutton:
Whatever you think of the commercials, Groupon succeeded in getting the country talking about its brand. I write about saving money here, but this may be the first time I’ve mentioned Groupon on Consumerism Commentary. I’m not normally a big fan of the concept of “saving money by spending it;” this and other couponing tools are generally just an excuse for people to buy things they don’t need anyway.
Overall, the set of commercials this year was a big disappointment. The most I’ll say is that the Darth Vader commercial was cute, but I don’t remember what car brand was featured, so it was not nearly as effective as Groupon’s ads. This year, I didn’t particularly care for either team in the game, so I was hoping for some better entertainment between the plays. The half-time show was disappointing from a technical standpoint, and the commercials were neither innovative nor entertaining. What did you think?
(Continue reading for the other Groupon commercials featuring Elizabeth Hurley and Cuba Gooding, Jr. or provide your response below.)