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Why the Groupon Superbowl Ads are a Symptom of a Sick Culture

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Groupon’s Superbowl ads have already generated a firestorm of controversy.

The spots, which variously made light of endangered whales, rainforest depletion or the brutal Chinese oppression of Tibet, are being criticized for not only dismissively treating some pretty serious issues, but doing so to sell… discount coupons.

But it would be a mistake to look at these ads as a little blip in an otherwise smoothly functioning world. Instead, these Groupon ads are a sign of how the tech world functions and thinks.

And what’s clear is that there is something seriously wrong with that mentality.

A World Gone Google

The English-speaking internet is currently dominated by two main companies: Google and Facebook. There are, of course, many, many others, but in terms of sheer reach and clout, these are by far the largest.

Both of these companies’ primary source of income is ads. Google especially functions by offering a wide variety of services and then running ads on them. Ads are next to everything: search results, emails, in RSS feeds, on top of websites, below them, before you click on sites – everywhere.

The point is that, in a world under Google, ads are the lifeblood that run through and alongside our lives online. So ads are next to emails informing you of death, or firings. They’re next to searches for charity, in RSS feeds for humanitarian blogs, on memorial pages.

Because the web is dominated by ad-supported industries, we have moved into an era in which all content is also fodder for selling you something regardless of what it is. And as a result, the line between ‘legitimate ad’ and ‘inappropriate attempt to monetize’ has started to crumble because the day-to-day experience of the web has broken down these lines. On Twitter, jokes appear right next serious news, and on Buzzfeed, real news lands right above irony-laced headlines.

So we are left with these Groupon ads in which it seems okay to use very serious issues to sell something.

The response – like that from Techcrunch – suggested that simply ‘some people wouldn’t get the joke’ because Groupon also let you donate to charity. But beyond the specious reasoning, it also demonstrates a strong line of thinking in the world of technology: monetize everything, and it doesn’t really matter how you get there.

Can’t See The Political Forest for the all the Virtual Trees

But this emphasis on revenue models would be nothing without the tech world’s capacity for narcissism.

Recently, Malcolm Gladwell’s wrote a short post in the New Yorker claiming social media had nothing to do with the protests in the Middle East – and even if they did, that fact wasn’t really interesting. It was facile and silly, and not really even worth much attention.

But what Gladwell did point out which was lost on the tech-minded multitudes was that the real story in Egypt was, ya’ know, the protests and the fight against a dictator. Surely that was the story, right?

Yet this didn’t stop tech pundits across the globe from spilling countless tonnes of virtual ink discussing the role of social media and arguing with Gladwell about what was right and what was wrong with his argument.

What it betrayed was the Western-centric tech world was more concerned with justifying its own validity and legitimacy than it was with the actual political events going on across the world. Of course it’s interesting what role social media played in the uprisings; but it’s also true that it’s not the most important thing about the events – or even close to it.

One Tech Nation, Under the Dollar

The Groupon ads weren’t an aberration or a mistake. They were, in fact, perfect signs of where technology now fits into our culture: it has become the network on which all things are to be monetized in order to keep the grand economic engine moving along.

The reasons for this are twofold: first, that the web’s ad-supported model means everything is fit to be monetized; and second is that the web and tech have become so insular and narcissistic that the real world doesn’t even rate in our conversations, politics and social upheaval instead forming the fodder for chatter about technology.

But far from a sign of a culture gone in the wrong direction, this is a part of our technology that we must seriously contemplate. Computer networks allow memes and political revolution to take on the same quality on Twitter. Indeed, they share the same visual space. And as a result, funny videos on YouTube and clips of protests all take on the same quality, not because we’ve lost the capacity to distinguish joke from serious issue, but because the web as a medium presents them to us in exactly the same way.

Worse, tech pundits who show up on Techmeme are often wealthy, privileged and unsympathetic to politics that don’t fit a free-market, individualist model. As a result, while they are happy to trumpet the role Twitter might have played in Egypt, it’s not like you see them dealing with the fact that the new government might have to form a coalition with the Muslim Brotherhood because it might be the best way to keep the peace and keep human rights intact.

Fine, you might argue: tech sites must talk about tech. But the Groupon ads are a symptom of what happens when a subculture like the tech-sphere becomes both obsessed with itself and super influential.

So the tech world is concerned with itself and itself alone. But when the technology we discussed is having such a profound effect on the world, this is a serious problem. And until the world of geeks realizes that it is focused too much on itself and the revenue-models that sustain it, things like the Groupon ad debacle will keep on happening.

  1. You can call Groupon’s Super Bowl ads distasteful and unfunny, but they did exactly what they should have done–generate controversy and attention.

    I don’t see anyone talking about Living Social’s Super Bowl ad. If Groupon made a regular, somewhat funny, and politically correct ad, no one would have noticed.

    Think GoDaddy. The fact that they generated so much controversy is one reason they were able to establish such a strong brand.

    While, some may think that this may drive away customers, I doubt that it will have any large effect on their customer loyalty.

  2. I think many people miss the mark when it comes to Super Bowl ads. It’s not about how many people watch the ads. It’s about how much buzz it generates the day after.

  3. This is a solid article.

    @sb423 – this kind of illustrates another problem in that it is now highly desired for some marketers to add shock, controversy, or plain old offensive material to advertising – to do exactly what you pointed out – generate a buzz. Whether that buzz is good or bad they don’t always seem to show concern.

    Honestly, I think a backlash could be brewing about this type of thing. There were people and companies that I saw “tweeting” after the ads that are straight up boycotting companies like Groupon and GoDaddy for just their superbowl ads. Granted it’s probably a small percentage who will go that distance and that buzz far outweighs a few disgruntled folks in the eyes of marketers. I just wonder when the scale will tip on this sort of thing.

    There are plenty of non-offensive, great marketing campaigns out there (like the first round of the Old Spice Man ones were a brilliant reboot for a product line) but then there also seems to be a lot of what I like to call, “desperately random” ads that aren’t necessarily offensive, but it clearly shows how advertising is sliding down hill (the new radio shack ads with the animals is a good example of this) – even if it is using the “latest technology”.

    The more the population gets jaded to the desperately random, the politically incorrect and the downright offensive, the more marketers will have to out-do themselves and push it even further to gain attention. I’m hoping the backlash will happen before that.

  4. I don’t think the Groupon ad (while distasteful) is an indication of anything more than trying to generate buzz. The ads as a whole make fun of rich celebrities trying to promote their favorite causes. You may think the plight of Tibetans and the atrocities committed there are awful and they are, but have you done anything to solve them? Is it our job to solve them?

    I don’t think these ads have anything to do with a larger problem in the tech world or narcissism. They are trying to out “buzz” their competitors. As sb43 mentioned above, is anyone talking about Living Social’s ad?

    There were several distasteful ads on display during the Super Bowl. This was one of them. The concept was clever, the execution was bad. People are upset, but they are talking.

  5. Well written article. However, I am not totally sold that the ads were really all that surprising or offensive. If I try real hard I might be able to be slightly offended by the whale one but other than that I just think the ads are rather boring. They are just introducing an unexpected twist at the end.

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