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Is Offensive Advertising The New Marketing Paradigm?

Groupon.com, the “deal of the day” electronic couponing website, made its foray into the advertising big leagues recently by hiring ultra hip advertising agency Crispin Porter, famous for the edgy viral Burger King ad “The Subservient Chicken,” to create its first Super Bowl ad.  Featuring Timothy Hutton, the ad immediately came under fire for making light of the plight of the Tibetan People, prompting the company CEO to pull the ad and make a public apology. 

The ad opens with a sweeping view of mountainous Tibet “The people of Tibet are in trouble,” actor Timothy Hutton instructs us in a voiceover. “Their very culture is in jeopardy. But they still whip up an amazing fish curry.” The camera pans back to reveal Hutton sitting in a Tibetan restaurant in Chicago.  Hutton explains he can enjoy great Tibetan food at a discount because over 200 people have signed up for a special Groupon deal that allows them to save 50% on their meal.

There has been much written about the offensive nature of the ad, and what the long term effects will be to the brand.  That said if you have never heard of Groupon, you have now.  So there is a case to be made that the controversy (intended or not) has produced some sizable free media weight for Groupon .

Consider the numbers; one 2011 Super Bowl ad delivered approximately 93 million viewers.  Offend enough people that the national press picks it up, and the ad goes viral and you end up delivering millions more impressions.  As of last week Groupon generated an additional; 389,000 Youtube commercial impressions, 250,000 commentary views and 1,870,000 Google related results.

These are just published numbers; Groupon also generated millions of additional un trackable free impressions as a result of the controversy on CNN, NY Times, Huffington Post, LA Times and many more.  In traditional media measurement terms, which bases success on how many eyeballs see your ad, they seemed to have done very well.  Is it a coincidence that Groupon hired an agency famous for making ads go viral? 

To further my point, recently Kraft Foods have received some bad press for their new ad for Athenos Hummus.  The ad features a pretty young American girl being berated by her Greek Grandmother (“Yiayia”).  Yiayia not once, but twice tells her granddaughter that “she is dressed like a prostitute.” But she does approve of the yummy Athenos Hummus.  Needless to say, The Greek Institute is offended, and wants them pulled.  The social conservatives haven’t weighed in yet on the use of the word “prostitute” and Kraft made a statement that the ads were produced in good fun.

The Athenos ad is not getting as much play in the press as the Groupon ad, but it got me wondering, are we witnessing the creation of a new paradigm in marketing called offensive advertising?   With so many media channels, we in the ad industry are always challenged to find new ways to break through the clutter, offending people certainly gets the attention of the national press resulting in more media bang for your buck! 

The big unanswered question is how many of those additional impressions convert to actual customers, and is the controversy surrounding your brand worth it?

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2 Responses to Is Offensive Advertising The New Marketing Paradigm?

  1. Gary Pilla says:

    Michele’s right on the money here. Bad press gets more time than anything good which is unfortunate. Look at Charlie Sheen and Lindsey Lohan. We can’t get enough. For new companies they feel this is the way to jump start their brand. It’s working. For a company like Groupon who, in my opinion will be able to come out smelling like a rose. Because they are a service that will save everyone money and, at the end of the day, that’s what people want. That, and the amazing fish curry.

  2. Elena Ardantz says:

    Well said Michelle. I, personally, think the Athenos ad is hilarious and brings to mind some of the old time advertising indicative of the 50’s era. Rebellion against politically correct advertising seems to be the new trend…and for the few moments of “negative” fame, the payoff seems to be working.

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