February 12, 2011

Groupon and Kenneth Cole: Trafficking in Human Misery

On Sunday night, the otherwise beloved social buying site, Groupon.com, caused gasps in living rooms across America -- as well as virtual gasps on computer screens across America -- with their Super Bowl ad. The ad copy proposes that, while the Tibetan people are in danger of extinction, Tibetan refugees do make excellent fish curry for Groupon customers to enjoy.

The fact that Groupon is also promoting online contributions to The Tibet Fund and promising matching donations of up to $100,000 was not mentioned in the surprisingly graceless and unfunny ad, prompting the question: were there any grownups in charge when their agency pitched the ad? (In advertising there actually are some times -- although granted not many -- when a focus group really is a good idea.)

To his credit, Groupon Founder and Chief Executive Andrew Mason wrote a blog post in which he underscores that Groupon takes social responsibility very seriously. He graciously defended their ad agency, saying it "strives to draw attention to the cultural tensions created by brands" and claimed that Groupon was making fun of itself, much the way Hulu did last year in an ad by the same agency. Mason also noted that the ads that he personally finds offensive are "the scores of Super Bowl ads that are built around the crass objectification of women," adding, in a bit of wishful thinking, "unlike those ads, no one walks away from our commercials taking the causes we highlighted less seriously."

Perhaps no one in the Groupon office will take them less seriously, but undoubtedly the very same viewers who enjoy light beer and the objectification of women will do just that, having been subtly prompted to do so by Groupon. And while the Hulu ad made fun of Hulu's service, saying that it rotted your brain, the Groupon ads aren't just making fun of Groupon's service, they are making fun of a people who are having their brains blown out by an oppressor. 

Groupon's lapse in taste was even more inexplicable coming on the heels of last week's social media gaffe by designer Kenneth Cole, who tweeted: "Millions are in uproar in #Cairo. Rumor is they heard our new spring collection is now available online at http://bit.ly/KCairo - KC." That Tweet was particularly offensive because of the use of the "#", which inserted it into the stream of political Tweets that activists and sympathizers were following (and we wonder why the world hates America!)

Cole was quick to apologize, as well, and to remove the offending Tweet, but it wasn't the first time he had appropriated death and suffering to sell blazers and hobo bags. In his "Today is Not a Dress Rehearsal," campaign, launched only five months after September 11th, 2001, he created a particularly upsetting ad featuring a sexy model stretched out on a dining room table eating strawberries in her skimpy Kenneth Cole clothes, with the tagline "On September 12th, families returned to the dining room table."

While most of Cole's provocative ads suggest positive change (if you agree with him politically, of course), his "it's all about me" appropriations of real loss and tragedy, like the Groupon ad, minimize and trivialize the very real suffering of the Egyptian and Tibetan countries, communities, and cultures.

People in Egypt and Tibet are struggling and dying for the same fundamental freedoms that allow Cole and the good folks at Groupon to make their own political and social views heard. While it is often said that all publicity is good publicity, let's hope that Kenneth Cole (the brand), Groupon, and all companies for that matter stop capitalizing on and trivializing human misery and suffering for commercial gain and to drive traffic to businesses and websites. That kind of "trafficking" and commoditization of pain, death, and passionately held political beliefs has no place in truly responsible advertising or social media outreach.

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