The Fine Line Between Edgy and Tasteless: What Marketing Professionals Can Learn from Groupon’s Super Bowl Faux Pas

Who tuned in to watch the Packers clean house last night? While I’m sorry to say I missed the game, I did keep up with the highlights via Twitter. What did I learn? That the public outrage over Groupon’s marketing faux pas dominated game day conversation.

Okay, yes, I hang out with a lot of marketing fiends on Twitter. (#Usguys and #Usgals, you know who you are!) So you expect to hear more commentary on the commercials than on the game itself. But with the Internet exploding with comments like these…

“Groupon seems to have achieved the unique feat of paying $3M to lose customers who previously loved them. #brandbowl”

“Well, off to buy a new #Chrysler, drink a #Coke, switch to #Verizon, unsubscribe to #Groupon and fire #GoDaddy. Night #superbowl #brandbowl.”

“Hey Groupon, how about next year let’s try an ad that moves from slavery to “good ol’ soul food savings. Stay classy. #tibet.”

“Got my morning email from @groupon and hit unsubscribe.”

…even non-marketing professionals have to sit up and pay attention.

If you missed the ads you can check out the one that caused the most fury below: A parody of a fundraiser to help the Tibetan people. More ad samples are available at

What did you think? Tasteless and tacky? Hilarious? Or a good advertising schtick gone wrong?

Groupon founder Andrew Mason said, “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”)?”

Apparently the concept is a running inside joke among the company, which started life in 2007 as an organization that allowed people to encourage others to give money or do something as a group. The site is also offering discounted vouchers and/or Groupon points to donors of the causes they parodied, which wasn’t mentioned when their commercials aired.

This loops back around to an excellent question for today’s marketing professionals. How far is too far when you’re trying to appeal to an “edgier” audience? Lighthearted, sometimes tacky comedic advertising makes for a strong player in today’s consumer driven society, both online and off, making the line between humorous and hideous an even finer tightrope for today’s marketers to walk.

Signs suggest that Groupon could and should have followed in Old Spice’s shoes and made a “parody” commercial featuring their own product without making light of causes with a strong public support backing, making them a poster child for the necessity of carefully considering your target audience, their values and what they really want from you before you kick off your next campaign.

What’s your take on the line between humorous and downright distasteful in today’s marketing world?