Monday, 14 February 2011

The good, the bad and the misguided

I couldn't let today pass without making mention of the fact that this is blog post number 666. Anyone who studied their Bible thoroughly, or enjoyed the sight of a toddler attempting to finish off Lee Remick and an innocent goldfish, knows the significance of that particular number.

That set me off thinking about good and evil. More specifically, when someone sets out with the best intentions, only to sabotage their own prospects with a few bad decisions. Although some people like to see the world in black and white terms, in reality, there's a fine line between good and bad. And it's an easy line to cross if you're not careful. This is something that Groupon founder Andrew Mason knows all about.

Last week, during the Superbowl, the 111 million-strong audience was left dumbfounded, offended and disturbed by an astonishing lapse in taste and judgement. But once the Black Eyed Peas' half-time performance was over, viewers found themselves incensed all over again by Groupon's ill-advised new ad campaign.

The series of ads showed high-profile celebrities (well, Timothy Hutton and Liz Hurley were high-profile once upon a time) empathising with major international humanitarian crises, only to then suggest that consumers take advantage of major discounts on regionally-relevant businesses - Tibetan food, Brazilian waxes etc.

It probably didn't help matters that the messages were delivered in an utterly dead-pan manner, giving no indication that there was any kind of sly humour at work. Despite the mistaken belief that Americans don't 'do' irony, the joke itself was buried too deeply under a layer of insensitive opportunism for anyone to notice.

The real irony, however, is the fact that Groupon actively supports many of the organisations it appears to be mocking. As Mason attempted to explain on a blog, following the fall-out over the ads: "Groupon’s roots are in social activism... and we continue to use Groupon to support local causes with our G-Team initiative. In our two short years as a business, we’ve already raised millions of dollars for national charities like Donors Choose and Kiva."

Although Groupon have now pulled the offending campaign from the airwaves, it's interesting to note that the organisations being spoofed in the ads endorsed the messages. John Hocevar, a biologist with Greenpeace and founder of Students for a Free Tibet, voiced his support: "Greenpeace is happily participating in the campaign. The truth is that the 'Save the Money' campaign and the commercial are really helping us save the whales."

The problem with satire is that there's always a danger you'll strike too close to the bone. The more accurate your aim, the more likely it is that people will miss the point you're trying to make. This is the reason why The Onion still gets recycled by genuine news sources that can't tell the difference.

As Mason pointed out in his apologetic blog, "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." And that's why the campaign was such a mistake - he forgot the first rule of advertising: know your audience.

Those beer-swilling, giant-foam-finger-wearing TV viewers are not likely to stop and question the satiric intent of your messaging. Come to think of it, they probably won't give a shit about discounted whale-watching trips either.

1 comment:

  1. The goldfish wasn't innocent.