How to Offend Your Consumer Base…and Get Away With It

I know how I’m supposed to react. I really do. Manipulating human suffering and environmental devastation for your own ends is wrong. Thankfully, I had all the moral crusaders from Twitter, WordPress and the classroom reinforcing the immorality of it all week long. You know, just in case I didn’t understand.

So, what’s the point of writing a blog post about it? After all, you know that it was wrong, don’t you? DON’T YOU?

What all these individuals failed to explain in quantifiable terms was how Groupon’s “gaffe” would have a negative impact on the company.* They managed to upset a fair number of people, but the initial backlash will certainly be overshadowed by the positive impact these commercials will have in the long run. Only one week later, we’ve become a little more skeptical of whether or not these public relations “disasters” were disasters at all. Could it be that a company would still air such an insensitive advertisement and be content with the consequences of their decision?

My answer is a resounding yes. Let’s think about this logically, which is what I’m assuming Groupon did when they made the decision to use fake PSAs as a segue into promotions for local American businesses. First and foremost, these advertisements are going to get a lot of attention. In fact, the Groupon ad is the only one that I’m still hearing about a week later. Beyond that basic prediction though, I’m going to assume their expectations went like this:

People will laugh at the ad. This is what I did when I first saw it.

Oh that’s right, I’m a public relations major. Now I feel guilty for laughing.

People will be angry. How do I show that I’m angry? To the Internet!

So this site says that the company donates money to these causes. Oh.

People will talk about how angry they are at work and school on Monday. This was one of the first topics discussed during my class on Tuesday morning.

If the teacher says it was a bad idea, it must be true!

People will wonder what in the world a Groupon is. Neither of my roommates knew what it was, so I took the liberty of filling them in.

One week later and we’re still talking about it. These people are a little more clever than I first thought.

So maybe it was immoral to use these causes as a marketing ploy, but think about what consumers have discovered in the week since the commercial aired: Groupon is a company that offers subscribers huge discounts to local businesses. Groupon also offers an opportunity for subscribers to donate to the causes mentioned in each commercial. For every $15 donation, Groupon matches it – up to $100,000 for each cause.

Most importantly for the company itself, all of this has only increased their brand recognition among potential subscribers. Google Trends shows this massive spike in online activity for the term “Groupon” following Super Bowl Sunday:

The typical PR dilemma: What is the point of mentioning coverage if it doesn’t carry any of our key messages? Because in this case, all of the coverage – negative or positive – referenced both Groupon’s mission and it’s commitment to donating to the causes it “manipulated” in the commercials. The controversy became the story, and that story required that bloggers and journalists mention both Groupon’s business model and the activist role it plays to help these causes.

This was a prime opportunity for American consumers to condemn the inhumanity of another insensitive corporation. But take a moment to shift your perspective: As a Tibetan, would the “immorality” of this ad change your perception of a company that is facilitating a way to donate hundreds of thousands of dollars to your people? I don’t have a definite answer for that, but I would imagine that the ability to see concrete examples of humanitarian aid has a stronger impact on the average Tibetan than the content of a Super Bowl commercial airing halfway around the world.

Besides, how much have you donated to the people in Tibet?


*In the public relations industry, one of our biggest challenges is to provide quantitative evidence – usually ROI – to support our efforts. Remember, correlation doesn’t always imply causation.
**Don’t worry, I haven’t either. But I’m also not joining the Groupon witch hunt.


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4 responses to “How to Offend Your Consumer Base…and Get Away With It

  1. Hi, James,
    You make some awesome points about the public relations side of the recent Groupon ads. I think that while they may have bordered on distasteful, the ads got people talking about Groupon. This probably was its intent in the first place. Like your roommates, my dad asked me what Groupon was, I’m sure many others did the same. Groupon probably gained a few more customers who either found the ad funny, or did not find them offensive. From that standpoint I think they did a great job and most likely pulled in a few more customers. The ads probably would not have been offensive if they stuck to the environment or animals, but when they talk about people I think it goes a little too far.

    P.S. – I really like your layout.

    • Thanks, Tina. You touched on a really important point that Istruggled with when writing this post. Where do you draw the line at which causes can be used for something like this? If it’s the environment or animal rights I feel like I’d be able to shrug it off, but if they used breast cancer or a similarly sensitive issue, I’d feel much differently. Maybe I need to make a stronger effort to identify with the individuals or causes used in the ads? Like I said, I know it’s wrong to perceive this as morally correct advertising…I just wonder if that actually matters in the long run for the company.

  2. Hey James!
    I think Groupon is definitely in an ethically gray area. Does management disclose that this was a marketing ploy, part of a bigger plan to get attention? Or do they have to admit that the ads were a botched attempt at clever and edgy? While transparency is preferred, either option isn’t doing wonders for the Groupon brand. I personally did not find the ads funny enough to “go there,” but it could be because I don’t find Cuba Gooding, Jr. all that relevant! (“Snow Dogs,” anyone?)

    I guess time will tell what kind of financial impact the controversy will have on the company!

    • Good point, Claire. When it comes to the aftermath, should they adopt the stereotypical apology and remove the ads? Or is the damage already done? It may have been more effective to apologize to those offended, but instead stand by their conviction that the ads achieve the ultimate goal: drawing attention to their existing CSR efforts and increasing brand recognition among potential customers.

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