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Are Groupon’s Super Bowl Ads Offensive?

This article was written by in Consumer. 30 comments.

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:

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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.)

Groupon commercial: Elizabeth Hurley – Rainforest

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Groupon commercial: Cuba Gooding, Jr. – Whales

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Updated October 5, 2011 and originally published February 7, 2011.

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About the author

Luke Landes is the founder of Consumerism Commentary. He has been blogging and writing for the internet since 1995 and has been building online communities since 1991. Find out more about Luke Landes and follow him on Twitter. View all articles by .

{ 30 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar 1 Rob

I saw the Tibet ad during the Superbowl (haven’t seen the one with Cuba Gooding Jr. yet) and I definitely thought it was in bad taste. I also found Phil Rosenthal’s tweet on the topic funny and true:

@phil_rosenthal: The Groupon ad has succeeded in getting people to root for Google, which is kind of amazing.

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avatar 2 Bobka

I did not find this year’s crop of Super Bowl commercials to be memorable with the possible exception of Chrysler’s unusual “Imported From Detroit” ad. As for Groupon, they have sponsored a few really exceptional deals, and, as a new venture, they probably felt the need to do something outlandish in order to capture the public’s attention.

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avatar 3 Rob

I agree about Chrysler’s Imported From Detroit ad (it seemed to have everyone talking at the office I did on-site work at today). However, I was a big fan of the Darth Vader Volvo ad. Think of how much Volvo spent on that versus how much Coca Cola spent on that CGI monstrosity of a commercial (the one with the fire-breathing dragon). Guess which one people talked about more?

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avatar 4 Anonymous

I thought the Motorola commerial that played off the old Apple 1984 commercial was clever (but doesn’t necessarily make me want to buy the product). Unfortunately I was the only person in our group of 8 watching the game that got it.

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avatar 5 Anonymous

I thought the Elizabeth Hurley and Cuba Gooding, Jr. ones were funny. The Timothy Hutton one wasn’t, but I think that is because the ads target a group of people rather than a place or animal.

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avatar 6 TakeitEZ

I thought the Darth Varder child was easily the best one. It had me laughing for a good minute.

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avatar 7 Rob

Absolutely. Goes to show you don’t need to spend a ton of money to come up with a great ad (I’m looking at you, Coca Cola).

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avatar 8 Anonymous

I didn’t see the Cuba Gooding, Jr. ad, but saw both the Liz Hurley and Tim Hutton spots. Liz Hurley’s ad had me laughing out loud. I just thought the one with Hutton would be offensive to a lot of people, once I realized it was a spoof for Groupon. I am a big Groupon user, and get their daily emails, nearly all of which are written tongue-in-cheek, so their ads weren’t offensive to me. Those out there who use Groupon will know what I mean – the online ads have a lot of sarcastic undertones, which are funny, but sometimes that humor doesn’t translate well on TV.

The ads were really mediocre this year – my favorites was the Darth Vader child. Really clever and so cute!

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avatar 9 Donna Freedman

Just a word in favor of social commerce coupons: If it’s for something you were going to buy anyway, then it IS cost-effective. For example, I allow myself a certain amount of massage. With Groupon et al., I pay as little as $35. I’ve seen social commerce coupons for things like dental care and eyeglasses, too.
When I did an article on social commerce for MSN Money, I interviewed people who used these vouchers to do things like pay for a kid’s senior pictures or give a holiday gift. In other words, they spent less of the money they’d planned to spend.
I agree that no one should use social commerce as a license to overspend. But I look at these vouchers the same way I look at rewards credit cards: If you use them right, they are great frugal hacks.
And if you can’t afford to eat out? A social commerce site simply means you’re overspending only half as much money — i.e., you’re still overspending.

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avatar 10 Anonymous

Yeah I thought the Tibet ad was in poor taste.

I didn’t see the other two.

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avatar 11 Anonymous

I wasn’t offended by the Hutton commercial, even before I found out about Groupon’s charitable donations. The Motorola commercial was good, but as Kevin noted, you needed to be around for 27 years to understand the intent. Even the best commercial of the lot (the aforementioned Chrysler/Eminem commercial) is meaningless if you don’t understand the importance of Detroit, or Eminem’s connection to the city.

In fact, there’s a common thread here – to understand a commercial with any depth, you need to have some background knowledge of the subject matter, such as an idea of why Groupon was founded, or an idea of who George Orwell was and how that could be related to the Apple-IBM corporate dynamics of the mid-1980s, or an idea of why a major industrial city would look to Marshall Mathers as a hero. Absent this deeper understanding, you get commercials about dogs serving beer – entertaining, but inconsequential.

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avatar 12 Luke Landes

If Groupon had to explain the joke in a blog post, then it’s fair to say it missed the mark. Consensus seems to be that even a good portion of the relatively few who are aware of Groupon’s corporate culture didn’t find them funny. But as I said, we’re all still talking about them, so in the end, it doesn’t matter. Any press is good press.

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avatar 13 skylog

i agree that everyone is talking about them, so mission accomplished as far as they are concerned. perhaps a lot was lost for those many, many people who know nothing about groupon. out of the 111 million americans that watched the super bowl, i would venture a huge percentage of them have never even heard of groupon.

that said, after seeing them all, i can see where some people could be offended, but to be honest, sadly, i probably see or hear worse things on a daily basis that are directed at actual people…and not as jokes. not even ones that need to be explained.

the thing that gets me is how so many people are talking about the ads, but nearly no one is covering that groupon is matching contributions to the causes they discuss in the commercials. (although it does not seem the tibet cause is).

regardless, i have only taken advantage of one groupon offer and one living social offer (of course the amazon one) as, to me at least, they were free money. i was going to use the offer i bought anyway, even before i saw the offer. in the case of the living social deal, i did not even have to pay as i referred three people who also took advantage of the deal.

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avatar 14 Anonymous

I just thought the segue was very awkward. The two topics have zero in common other than the word Tibet. It leaves you feeling like the person talking to you is a rambling idiot who can’t make coherent logical relationships in their thought processes.

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avatar 15 Anonymous

Yes, the segue was awful.

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avatar 16 Anonymous

I thought they were clever(especially the Hurley one). As a whole I didn’t care for the ads this year.

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avatar 17 Anonymous

I don’t usually get offended all that easily and didn’t see any problems with the commercials. Were they all particularly funny? Nope, but I don’t think the company made any of them maliciously.

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avatar 18 Anonymous

Lighten up! Groupon ads were hilarious!! I loved them and got a good laugh. Remove thumbs from your butts.

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avatar 19 Anonymous

Jane – tell that to the Dalai Lama who cannot return to his homeland.

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avatar 20 Anonymous

Tim Hutton and Groupon were pretty damn offensive.

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avatar 21 OrchidGirl

The ads felt off and tasteless when I saw them. They missed the mark at making fun of celebrities and their causes. If they had started the ad with “Celebrity Causes brought to you by Groupon,” I think it would have gone off a lot better and people would have been expecting it to be humorous.

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avatar 22 Bucksome Boomer

It’s too bad we’re talking about Groupon’s insensitive commercial instead of the clever one by their competitor, Living Social.

I did like the Darth Vader one and even the godaddy commerical with Joan Rivers. Otherwise, it was a pretty dull day for commercials. Do we expect too much now?

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avatar 23 tigernicole86

I didn’t find the spots to be offensive, merely tacky and without the humor that I would have expected from a brand that’s trying to keep it’s place with so many other companies trying to compete.

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avatar 24 Anonymous

I thought the GroupOn ads were funny. Regardless, they definitely accomplished their goal, since everybody is talking about it.

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avatar 25 gotr31

The Groupon ads were in poor taste. It is a disgusting example of exploiting something for a buck!

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avatar 26 Anonymous

I think they are funny. The ads move you one way, then suddenly switch. If you didn’t laugh at the world occasionally, you would go mad.

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avatar 27 eric

First time I heard ppl at work talking about commercials…interesting water cooler talk.

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avatar 28 Anonymous

I’m not in the US now, but after all the talk truth is I was kind of expecting something more spectacular or at least controversial.

Poor taste and poor sense of “humor” if you can call it that. Only reason people talk about them is because of the Super Bowl, else they would have been quickly disregarded as clueless.

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avatar 29 Anonymous

Our society is full of a bunch of over-sensitive babies, it seems. It’s fine if you didn’t find it funny, but for so many to find it SO offensive that it needs to be removed from the air? Get over yourself. It was a joke. And Groupon was making fun of themSELVES and the celebrities in the ads, using a form of humor known as the “bait and switch” method.

What is truly funny is that I’m sure that so many people who complain about this laugh at mindless shows like Family Guy, which pushes the line much further when it comes to sensitive topics.

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avatar 30 Anonymous

I thought the ad was in poor taste because it IS the reality for many political refugees. Many are respected intellectuals and scholars in their own cultures but for their “freedom” they live in exile in the West, working in the service industry for minimum wage. Great for them that they can make a mean bowl of curry and serve it up to you?

Making the powerless the butt of jokes isn’t so funny to me. Maybe the joke was really about the idiocy of limousine liberals who would eat at a Tibetan restaurant to “save Tibet”.

You know, the folks who buy $tuff because a tiny part of the profit$ will be donated to tsunami (or whatever) relief. “If I buy this 50 dollar t-shirt from the Wilco (or whoever) concert, 25 cents will be donated! I care and I made a contribution!”

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