The company came under fire for one spot in particular starring actor Timothy Hutton, which critics slammed for exploiting the plight of the people of Tibet in order to promote Groupon.com. The 30-second spot reportedly cost Groupon close to $3 million.
“We hate that we offended people, and we’re very sorry that we did — it’s the last thing we wanted,” Groupon said in a statement. “We thought we were poking fun at ourselves, but clearly the execution was off and the joke didn’t come through.”
The questionable Tibet ad played out like this:
“Mountainous Tibet … one of the most beautiful places in the world,” the ad begins with Hutton speaking in a serious tone. “This is Timothy Hutton. The people of Tibet are in trouble, their very culture in jeopardy.”
Then the tone suddenly shifts into hammy pitchman mode.
“But they still whip up an amazing fish curry. And since 200 of us bought on Groupon.com, we’re getting $30 worth of Tibetan food for just $15.”
Groupon CEO Andrew Mason initially claimed he was surprised by the backlash to the Super Bowl commercials, because he said the ads were meant to play as “spoofs” of celebrity public service announcements.
There were two other commercials in the series, which starred Elizabeth Hurley and Cuba Gooding Jr. and made fun of saving the whales and the devastation of Brazil’s rainforest.
While the “spoof” factor missed the mark, Groupon says their efforts were well-intentioned by pointing out it was an attempt to bring awareness and raise money for the various organizations spotlighted in the ads. They even set up a place on their web site where viewers could go and make donations to those worthy causes (although that was not mentioned in the Super Bowl ads), with Groupon offering to partially match the donations.