Groupon’s seemingly mock charity appeals for Tibet, the Brazilian rainforest and whales didn't represent the best of the Super Bowl commercials – the Volkwagen "Force" ad still ranks as tops, a gem that shined all the more because of the relatively lackluster competition.
But the Groupon spots, for all the controversy they’ve generated, may go down as the best cases-in-point to exemplify 2011 as the year that Super Bowl ads went Super Meta: They're parodies that almost instantly inspired parodies.
The commercials – the first features a Timothy Hutton plea for Tibet that makes a jarring hairpin turn into a pitch for bargain curry – appear to mock causes, but are actually stealth fundraisers (too stealthy judging from the adverse reaction in some circles). And, in keeping with a major theme of the latest Super Sunday of advertising, they’ve found an extended life online.
Conan O'Brien did some Monday night quarterbacking, quickly turning around a funny Groupon takeoff that flew across the Internet. In O'Brien's version, shots of the Hindenburg disaster give way to a spot touting a sandwich special at Blimpie (“Oh, the frugality!” reads the tagline).
He produced two even stronger (and far more irreverent) spoofs Tuesday, both with viral potential: One juxtaposes Osama Bin Laden and a bowling promotion (“Death to high prices!”), while the other pairs images of the tragic Native American Trail of Tears with a bogus T.G.I. Friday’s “Trail of Beers” deal.
It’s a good bet that more folks are watching the O’Brien satires online than on TV at a time when Super Bowl ads are increasingly logging repeat viewings on the Internet – both pre- and post-game.
The cute "Force" ad generated buzz by debuting on YouTube Feb. 2, racking up some 13 million hits before kickoff and garnering millions more since. The Hutton spot, and the other Groupon efforts featuring Elizabeth Hurley and Cuba Gooding Jr., are experiencing a more modest viral pop, though the ads seem to be sparking as much outrage as laughter.
You’d be excused for not noticing that Groupon launched a site, snarkily dubbed Save The Money, which has links to charities for the causes mentioned in the ads. The company has pledged to match donations.
The folks at Groupon, though, could have spared themselves a little trouble – and a lot of complaints – if they had used the comic ads to make a clearer connection to their support for the serious causes, even if some folks will never see the humor in the commercials.
Groupon founder Andrew Mason found himself in the unenviable position of having to explain – and defend – the joke on the company's blog.
“Our ads highlight the often trivial nature of stuff on Groupon when juxtaposed against bigger world issues, making fun of Groupon….,” he wrote. “We would never have run these ads if we thought they trivialized the causes – even if we didn’t take them as seriously as we do, what type of company would go out of their way to be so antagonistic?”
As Groupon finds that being edgy can have its bumps, check out the ads and O’Brien’s spoofs below:
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Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992. Follow him on Twitter.