Much like jokes, if you have to explain advertising to the audience then it's probably not that effective. After Groupon's Super Bowl ads sparked controversy and weathered widespread criticism the deal website's founder and CEO Andrew Mason released an official statement standing by the ads and the Miami-based advertising agency Crispin Porter + Bogusky that created it while completely missing the point of the criticism.
When we think about commercials that offend us, we think of those that glorify antisocial behavior - like the scores of Super Bowl ads that are built around the crass objectification of women. Unlike those ads, no one walks away from our commercials taking the causes we highlighted less seriously. Not a single person watched our ad and concluded that it's cool to kill whales. In fact - and this is part of the reason we ran them - they have the opposite effect.
The firm that conceived the ad, Crispin Porter & Bogusky, strives to draw attention to the cultural tensions created by brands. When they created this Hulu ad, they highlighted the idea that TV rots your brain, making fun of Hulu. Our ads highlight the often trivial nature of stuff on Groupon when juxtaposed against bigger world issues, making fun of Groupon. Why make fun of ourselves? Because it's different - ads are traditionally about shameless self promotion, and we've always strived to have a more honest and respectful conversation with our customers. 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?
Oh, silly us, we're just too stupid to understand CP+B's high minded advertising and the "cultural tensions created by brands" it highlights. Whoops! Oh, wait, actually, that's not the issue at all. Groupon could have made fun of themselves in any number of ways. The problem is that it the ads give the impression that they're actually making fun of charity while shameless self promoting the site's services.
The Hulu ad Mason mentions, featuring Alec Baldwin which was cited as one of the most popular to air during last year's Super Bowl works because the issue it's poking fun of isn't serious. Television doesn't actually rot the brain, no matter what your grandmother tells you. Even if it did, consumers don't seem to mind the brain numbing effects of the boob tube.
If that Hulu ad was actually anything like the Groupon ads it would have featured Alec Baldwin strolling through an impoverished village in Africa while telling the audience, "Here in this African town most residents have never even seen a television, and we hope one day generations of Americans will never see a TV either, because now with Hulu you can watch Real Housewives on your computer!"
Conversely, CP+B and Groupon could have poked fun at the idea that Americans like to save money on dumb stuff that they don't even need, which would actually be more akin to the idea that TV rots your brain.
Perhaps feature a woman in a tattered Chanel suits with her hair a mess and dark roots showing while shoving a clump of Raman noodles in her mouth with a plastic fork while sucking up the single remaining noodle up through her lips which seem badly in need of spa service. She explains she's had to make a few cutbacks ever since her husband was taken away to jail for his involvement in a Ponzi scheme that helped trigger the great recession she's had to make a few cut backs, but then she discovers Groupon and is able to find deals on silly things like fine dining, hair salons and spa services and can live some semblance of the good life again. Add in a bit of that trademark CP+B surreality and you've probably got a slightly controversial, but not ineffective ad that really drives home Groupon's services.
On the flip side, if Groupon kept producing ads like this how long until we see Andy Garcia telling us, "For years Cuban Americans have lived in exile as the home country they love is destroyed by a communist dictator, and yet they still make delicious pork and beans and because 45 of us bought a deal on Groupon at Sra. Martinez's Cuban Restaurant..." or a Spice Girl opining "The Gay community still faces the effects of the HIV/AIDS crisis even today, but Girl you know those homos know how to pluck your eyebrows, and because 100 of us bought this deal on Groupon at Lance's Eyebrow Extravaganza..."
Not a single person would watch those ads and conclude that Castro is great or HIV is awesome, but they'd probably be too horrified and angered by what they just saw to even get to the point of realizing that Groupon is trying to make fun of itself.