NEW YORK (WFAN/AP) — Online coupon site Groupon Inc.’s first foray into Super Bowl advertising aimed for humor but instead struck a raw nerve with viewers and human-rights groups for mocking serious social issues.

In one commercial, Timothy Hutton says “the people in Tibet are in trouble, their culture is in jeopardy,” as pictures of Tibet are shown on the screen. The punchline? It turns out he’s talking about a fish curry deal offered.

The ad, which debuted during American TV’s biggest night in advertising, when spots go for $3 million for 30 seconds, sparked widespread negative reaction on Twitter and Facebook.

According to research firm Alterian’s “Buzz Bowl,” which measures online activity, Groupon was among the five most-discussed advertisers online. But the buzz was bad, with 13 percent of conversations classified as “negative” and just 6 percent “positive.”

The Groupon ads weren’t the only ones that some felt went too far., a vacation rental Web site, ran an ad that showed people trying to fit into a crowded hotel room in a testing lab, resulting in a “test-baby” being flung against a glass window.

While slapstick humor is always common among Super Bowl ads — Pepsi Max had two ads showing people getting clocked in various body parts with soda cans — the “test baby” gag crossed a line suggesting child abuse for some viewers.

In Groupon’s pre-game ad, Cuba Gooding Jr. decried the plight of whales, but then touted a deal for a whale watching cruise. In a post-game commercial, Elizabeth Hurley lamented deforestation but then discussed a deal on a Brazilian wax.

The ads were created by Crispin Porter + Bogusky in Miami, an agency known for quirky work for Burger King and Ikea, and directed by Christopher Guest (“A Mighty Wind”).

All ads point viewers to, which does actually encourage visitors to donate to each of the charities related to the causes in the ads: including Rainforest Action Network, Tibet Fund, Greenpeace and buildOn.

But that message was lost, said Laura Ries, president of Ries & Ries, an Atlanta-based marketing strategy firm.

“Most people will learn about it after they saw the ads and think it’s a reaction to negative PR,” she said. But she added a bigger problem with the campaign is that it didn’t really make clear what, which offers hundreds of daily discounts in 500 local markets, is all about.

“They went for the joke and they forgot the strategy, and that is probably a common rookie mistake in the Super Bowl,” she said.

Groupon had no immediate response. On Twitter it directed people to to “support Tibet’s largest charity.”

But some human rights organizations spoke out against the ad because it makes light of the situation in Tibet, which has been controlled by China for 60 years. The Chinese government’s handling of Tibet is frequently protested by human rights groups for political repression.

“It could be argued that the advert has helped raise the profile of what is happening in Tibet, after all awareness is the first step to accountability,” U.K.-based nonprofit Free Tibet said on its Web site. “But it does put Tibetans and their suffering at the heart of the joke and when it’s used for commercial purposes, that is exploitative.”

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The negative reaction is a black eye for the two-year-old startup, based in Chicago, which has grown quickly, spawned numerous imitators and enjoyed investor enthusiasm. It rejected a $6 billion takeover bid from Google Inc. last year.

The flap probably won’t cause permanent damage.

“They had a bad game,” she said. “Is it a losing season? Probably not.”

Which commercial did you think was the worst? Sound off in the comments below!

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.

Comments (8)
  1. Anonymoose says:

    Wow, who cares. In what way does this add make the situation in Tibet worse? It doesn’t. Do you think the Tibetans care about some ironic commercial? The only ones this add ‘offends’ are people who feel guiltily that they aren’t living in a 3rd world hellhole, so they think that if they raise awareness and pretend to care they can absolve themselves. Maybe if we yell at Groupon enough on the media, the mean old Chinese will stop killing Tibetans? Get real. This uproar is nothing but white consumer guilt. And what kind of idiot isn’t “Aware” that there is suffering in the world, HR?

  2. Patrick Mahoney says:

    “The flap probably won’t cause permanent damage??”

    Groupon’s $15 BILLION IPO is going down the toilet. Read that on the Wall Street Journal.

    We will see a lot more than backpedaling from them in the next few weeks. They will next try to buy their way into good graces…but no one is going to take the bait.

    Using genocide to create buzz got them more than they expected. Now its the buzz-saw ;-o

    Its sad for Groupon, but inevitable.

    1. Patrick Mahoney says:

      Not all money is good money. To the whales? They don’t care if you ridicule them, and their plight. But to 6 million surviving Tibetans, who have seen many millions tortured, imprisoned, and killed??? Its not worth the few bucks these greedy connivers will throw their way….maybe. Just note that the genocide in Tibet is as bad or worse than the Jews in WWII, they just haven’t talked about it. Fearing worse from China, INC.. And the ad agency & Groupon minimized that; just to leverage the $3 Billion Google Offer to $15 Billion public offering. Well, anyone with a conscience isn’t going to buy that stock. Its not only wrong, but look how clueless they are in dealing with China. I wouldn’t give my money to such slap stick, fly by night, Wall Street Opportunists. Would you?

  3. Karen Larson says:

    Groupon, no contest. No class and really disgusting.

    1. Patrick Mahoney says:

      “Spot on,” Karen 🙂

  4. Lieutenantdan says:

    How about doing something about how the media portrays men.
    Like we are all nothing but a bunch of idiots.
    If they did this with females the media would be in big trouble.

  5. H.R. Bradford says:

    I’ve canceled my groupon account based on this commercial. It denotes a “sweat shop mentality” that who cares about the rest of the world as long as I get a deal. I don’t know what they were aiming for but I think Timothy Hutton is lucky he has freedom of speech, cause he’d be in trouble for marketing so foolishly in a place like Tibet. We are the richest nation in the world. We need to raise awareness of the world’s suffering, not mock them!

    1. Patrick Mahoney says:

      Great Point! 🙂

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