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GroupOn's Weird Super Bowl Ads, Explained

Ads that seemed to make fun of worthy causes are supposed to help them after all

The fallout over GroupOn's Super Bowl ads is a helpful reminder of why most ads during the big game involve wacky animals, pretty ladies serving beer, or stupid guys freaking out because they touch the same potato chip.

When you're trying to appeal to beer-guzzling football fans trying their best just to hear the TV, it's easiest to be straightforward. 

GroupOn got ambitious Sunday, trying to explain its somewhat complicated but well-meaning efforts to aid worthy causes even as it saves consumers money.

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Hence those ads that started out like PSAs: One with TimothyHutton discussing the plight of Tibet, then jarringly offering deals on cheap curry, and another with Elizabeth Hurley talking about deforestation -- and then hawking marked-down Brazilian waxes. GroupOn, as CEO Andrew Mason explained in a post-game blog post, actually does raise money toward the issues it glancingly mentioned in its ads:

"We take the causes we highlighted extremely seriously – that’s why we created this campaign in partnership with many hallmark community organizations, for whom we’re raising money at SaveTheMoney.org," he wrote. "Groupon’s roots are in social activism – we actually began as cause-based website called The Point, 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."

Visitors to SavetheMoney.org will find opportunities to help The Tibet Fund, the Rainforest Action Network, Greenpeace and buildOn. (Cuba Gooding, Jr. and Sheryl Crow did ads supporting the latter two.) 

GroupOn was trying to be funny, making a point about the trivialization of serious issues -- you know, like that Kenneth Cole tweet about Egypt -- even as it subtly noted its own role in helping charities.

But the ads didn't overtly explain that GroupOn does in fact try to help charities -- and wasn't just making tasteless fun of the idea. GroupOn's modesty -- and a widespread lack of awareness of its origins -- resulted in confusing ads that left many offended.

The morals? Doing good can be hard. And don't assume people know too much about you. And cuddly, funny animals always kill with viewers.

The Hutton ad: