What were the lessons for Madison Avenue on Super Bowl Sunday, the biggest day of the year for advertising?
Well, it seems that a beaver can best a Bieber, the Force may be as strong with a sedan as a Skywalker, a rapper can draw more applause for supporting his hometown than for singing — and social causes like the plight of Tibet may be no laughing matter.
The 60 commercials that ran nationally during Super Bowl XLV on Fox are being analyzed, scrutinized and chewed over to a fare-thee-well by pollsters, surveyors and data analysts. The increasing presence of marketers in social media like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube means there is far more data than in previous years showing how consumers responded to the spots, which cost sponsors an estimated $2.8 million to $3 million for each 30 seconds of airtime.
The commercials during Super Bowl XLV that seemed to resonate most with the estimated record 111 million viewers were those that offered “more of an emotionally based story, rather than just a joke,” said Bart Cleveland, partner and creative director at McKee Wallwork Cleveland, an agency in Albuquerque, N.M., that since 2000 has been conducting an online poll of Super Bowl spots at adbowl.com.
That explains the popularity of commercials for brands like Bridgestone, in which a beaver helped by a driver repays the favor six months later; Volkswagen, with the parents of a child dressed as Darth Vader playing along with his game involving the family’s Passat sedan; and Chrysler, which presented the rapper Eminem in a bold, two-minute pitch for cars “imported from Detroit.” Those commercials, in many instances, were described more favorably — and received higher scores — than spots with celebrities like Justin Bieber, who appeared with Ozzy Osbourne in a commercial for Best Buy.
The desire for spots that engaged emotionally may also explain why an ad for Groupon, which seemed to make light of Tibetan refugees to sell online discount coupons, was so widely castigated. The commercial, and two others that ran on Fox on Sunday, introduced a campaign for Groupon — its first national mainstream advertising — that spoofed pitches for charitable causes while helping to raise money for causes.
But the fund-raising element was missing from the commercials and could only be found online. In the Tibet commercial, the actor Timothy Hutton narrated scenes of refugees as poignant music plays. “The people of Tibet are in trouble,” he said. “Their very culture is in jeopardy.”
The scene suddenly shifted to Mr. Hutton seated in a restaurant. “But they still whip up an amazing fish curry,” he continued, “and since 200 of us bought at Groupon.com, we’re each getting $30 worth of Tibetan food for just $15” at a restaurant in Chicago.
“A lot of our panel thought it was fairly offensive,” said Tim Calkins, clinical professor of marketing at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., referring to a group of students that assessed Super Bowl ads.
“It makes Groupon seem somewhat insensitive as a company,” Mr. Calkins said. “It might have done quite a bit of damage.”
In a survey by Ace Metrix, which measures the effectiveness of the creative content of television ads, the Groupon commercial finished 54th of the 58 spots that were tracked. Its overall “Ace score” of 468, on factors like likability and persuasion, compared with a score of 662 for Ace’s top-ranked Super Bowl spot, a commercial for Doritos titled “Pug Attack.”
The campaign for Groupon, which carries the theme “Save the money,” is being created by Crispin Porter & Bogusky, a unit of MDC Partners known for risk-taking, rule-breaking work for advertisers like Burger King and Domino’s Pizza.
The spot featuring Mr. Hutton concluded with an announcer declaring, “Unlock great discounts in your town at Groupon.com.” On screen were the words, “See it again at Groupon.com.”
Only when viewers go to that site, or to savethemoney.groupon.com, do they learn there is actually an altruistic side to the campaign.
“If you save so much money that you feel like saving something else,” reads text on the home page of savethemoney.groupon.com, “donate to the four mission-driven organizations below. Groupon is matching donations to make sure they can save the money, too.”
In other words, the campaign is apparently meant to spoof do-gooder ads for groups like Save the Children, but also has a charitable component.
That message was lost on many Super Bowl viewers, as evidenced by comments left on social media Web sites like Twitter and with Groupon itself.
“More than offensive, this campaign is stupid,” wrote a poster on savethemoney.groupon.com identified as Lori N., who concluded by describing herself as a “former Groupon groupie.”
Another poster, identified as Tim R., wrote: “If Groupon is launching a charity initiative, it needs to explain this by revising the Super Bowl ads. I watched the ads that were on Fox last night, and I had no idea they were linked to the causes that Groupon appeared to be mocking.”
A third poster, identified as Jaymie D., called the campaign “offensive and insensitive,” adding, “I am also canceling my Groupon account immediately.”
Groupon, which began as a purveyor of digital coupons in November 2008, is known for so-called stunt marketing that is intended to attract attention. For instance, a contest called Live Off Groupon offers a cash prize of $100,000 to the “Groupawn” who can live for a year with only a laptop computer, a cellphone and an unlimited supply of the company’s discount coupons, known as Groupons. (The progress of the contestant, Josh Stevens, can be followed on liveoffgroupon.com.)
Recently, Groupon rejected a $6 billion takeover bid from Google and raised $950 million from large investors like Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers and Morgan Stanley. The company is proceeding with plans for an initial public offering that may value it at $15 billion or more.
A spokesman for Crispin Porter & Bogusky, Steve Sapka, referred inquiries to Groupon.
Late Monday afternoon, Andrew Mason, chief executive at Groupon, posted a lengthy statement on the corporate blog, groupon.com/blog, explaining the company’s intent.
“I’ve been spending the day listening to the negative feedback about our Tibet Super Bowl commercial,” he wrote, “and want to take a crack at explaining why we created this campaign.”
“The last thing we wanted was to offend our customers,” Mr. Mason said, because “it’s bad business and it’s not where our hearts are.”
“We would never have run these ads if we thought they trivialized the causes,” he wrote. “We take the causes we highlighted extremely seriously,” which is “why we created this campaign in partnership with many hallmark community organizations, for whom we’re raising money at SaveTheMoney.org.”
One of them, Greenpeace, posted a statement supporting Groupon on its blog on Monday.