Tibet, the Super Bowl, and Groupon’s voice

The big surprise about the brouhaha over that Groupon Super Bowl ad that pivots from threats to Tibetan culture to great deals on tasty Tibetan curry is that anyone’s surprised at what a Groupon commercial would sound like.

A kind description of the tone would be “flip.” Which you’d expect from director Christopher Guest, of course. But do people expect that from Groupon?

People should. Groupon prides themselves on their editorial perspective. Brandon Copple, the managing editor, quotes the CEO saying editorial is “the soul of Groupon.” He goes on: “We have this incredible voice that’s unique. Based on humor, creative but clear, descriptive but concise. There’s nobody out there putting as much muscle and intellectual power into their editorial.”

And those emails are pretty funny, citing cocktails that “keep conversations flowing through even the tensest first date or POW exchange” or BBQ sauce that comes from a bayou under Houston that leads to the word “hungermire.” Not offensive, but definitely flip.

But shortly after I first heard of Groupon, I heard people asking if the editorial really mattered. People wondered if anyone really read the copy, or if they just saw the deal, clicked, and bought.

And … I admit, I rarely actually read an entire email. And I’m a language guy. Half off at Fantagraphics? I’m in! No muscular, creative, descriptive copy necessary.

Then again, competitors like Tippr, LocalTwist, and LivingSocial fill their daily deal email templates with long copy and witty references. They’re not sure which parts of the Groupon formula are essential, either, so better to ape the whole thing for now. (Though they’re not usually as amusing.)

All of which is to say, the Groupon commercials sound a lot like the Groupon emails which sound a lot like the Groupon site. So why the brouhaha?

A few ideas:

  • People don’t actually read Groupon’s copy, or they don’t read enough of it to give them an idea of Groupon’s voice that works for parsing that commercial.
  • Groupon’s Onionesque take on their deals doesn’t work so well when applied to something more serious than half off a manicure.
  • A commercial is a horrible place to try and articulate something as complex as “We’re parodying self-important celebrities but not the causes they believe in while simultaneously reminding you that Groupon saves you big on walking tours.”
  • The audience for the Super Bowl is one of the last bastions of broad, mass market appeal, and satire has never played well to a broad mass market. To paraphrase George S. Kaufman, satire is what outrages Twitter on Sunday evening.

Is Groupon (or their ad agency) full of horrible, horrible people who think the death of Tibetan culture is funny? No, but it’s maybe full of people who didn’t quite get that you don’t use the edgier side of your personality when you’re first getting to know someone. Without context to set the tone, lots of people assume you’re a jerk, not someone who’s pretending to be a jerk to illustrate how, deep down, he’s a really great guy.