I was among the record-breaking 111 million people who watched the Super Bowl and saw the Groupon ads that spurred so much debate. As you may remember, the ads featured celebrities narrating PSA parodies for social causes such as Free Tibet and Save the Whales. Working in social marketing for nearly 10 years, I was intrigued by the decision to mock efforts like ours to raise awareness for such important causes in an effort to get some attention.
Undoubtedly, some customers were alienated. But, I have to say that after viewing the ads I was motivated to visit Groupon’s site to find out what this was all about and also to see how they explain the strategy (note, I didn’t visit any other site advertised during the game – not even the beloved Tiny Vader). I wasn’t very familiar with Groupon, which is on its way to becoming as ubiquitous as Facebook—thanks in part to the Super Bowl criticism.
After visiting the site, I was happy to learn that the company is encouraging visitors to donate to the featured charities at www.SaveTheMoney.org (and even matching those donations). I also learned that Groupon’s roots are in social activism. They began as a cause-based website called The Point, and are continuing to support national and local causes—they’ve already raised millions of dollars for Donors Choose.
In response to the initial backlash, CEO Andrew Mason posted twice on Groupon’s blog about it and even ended up pulling the ads. He said, “The last thing we wanted was to offend our customers – it’s bad business and it’s not where our hearts are.”
Beginning immediately after the Super Bowl and continuing through today (over 3 weeks later), discussion about the ads has been everywhere—in traditional media, on blogs, social networks, etc. Conan O’Brien even created his own mock ads.
So, while they received a firestorm of negative comments, Groupon did succeed in getting us all talking about their brand and their site traffic didn’t suffer as a result of the controversy. Check out Chris Heine’s exclusive data on Click Z News.
This begs the question — Is all publicity good publicity? And, with social media giving everyone a voice, how does that change the question?
Think about the Gap logo redesign last October. Just after the announcement, thousands of customers voiced their disappointment on Facebook and Twitter. Gap responded immediately on their Facebook page – “We know this logo created a lot of buzz and we’re thrilled to see passionate debates unfolding!”
Marka Hansen, president of Gap North America, defended the logo on The Huffington Post, explaining that it was an attempt to make the company appear more contemporary and current. I should note that it was recently announced that Ms. Hansen resigned and it doesn’t look like Gap’s sales are benefiting from the controversy.
So, maybe that’s an example of bad publicity not being so good for business? On a more positive note, if you look at how many people felt compelled to take a stand against the logo redesign, you can see just how many fervently love the Gap brand. Not a bad thing.
As social marketers, we’re all striving to break through the clutter, get our cause to stand out above the rest and, in most cases, start a conversation. So, can a little bit of controversy be helpful?
At the Ad Council we need to tread somewhat lightly—we have to be concerned with the media’s perception as we rely on them to run our ads entirely in donated time and space. And, many non-profits similarly have to worry about the impact of controversy and criticism on prospective donors.
But, we’re always looking to get the conversation going. With the growth of social media we have countless opportunities to initiate a dialogue and gain valuable insights from our audiences about our issues and how our ad strategies are resonating.
So, while there may be a perceived benefit to controversies like the Groupon campaign and Gap logo, as social marketers we need to consider whether the benefits truly outweigh the risks.
If you do decide to go the controversial route and get into some trouble, here are some great tips on how to deal with controversy from Forbes blogger Jessica Kleiman: