Forget offensive, inappropriate, or out of context. They just weren't any good. And the main reason they weren't good is that the story they told went in exactly the wrong direction: from heart to wallet. They started us thinking about serious topics, began to evoke our higher selves and deeper principles, and then turned the tables to show how they really perceive us: as shallow beasts who will happily sacrifice a couple million acres of rainforest to save a few dollars on a bikini wax.
This may be true, by the way. But there are lots of true things about the way we behave that we prefer not to acknowledge. For example, many of us who care about the environment drive or fly to get places. They could have made a commercial that said, "Global warming is destroying biodiversity, causing species to go extinct, and threatening the whole of humanity -- but it's worth it if you get to travel first-class." I personally would love to travel first-class, but the juxtaposition reminds me of the shallowness of that desire, killing it rather than reinforcing it.
So do I think the ads were a bad move? Yes. But will they kill Groupon? I doubt it.
Post-Super Bowl, my colleague Catharine Taylor wrote about Kenneth Cole's provocative and irreverent campaigns, saying, "It's time to change your brand." But as one commenter pointed out, citing an Ad Age case study on social-media sin, Kenneth Cole's Egypt tweet had, if anything, a slightly positive effect on the brand, driving a significant increase in followers while events unfolded. Likewise, the only reason I sought out the Groupon ads was so I could find out what all the controversy was about; I'm sure they've had millions of additional views for that very reason.
Here in Christchurch, New Zealand, our local Twitter community was disgusted by a tweet from a McDonald's NZ account: "Shakey town Christchurch I think you could do with some McDonald's #eqnz." The #eqnz hashtag is used to identify tweets relating to our ongoing earthquakes, and it's just inappropriate to use it to sell Big Macs. But will the raised hackles translate to fewer sales? Again, I doubt it. I won't patronize them, but I never did, and I don't think the transgression would be enough to interrupt a Golden Arches habit.
So is the moral of the story that it doesn't matter how naughty you are, how offensive on Twitter, or how insensitive on the most widely watched TV commercial of the year?
It depends what you mean by "matter."
If the only definition of "matter" is "have a negative impact on sales," then perhaps it doesn't matter.
But if the definition of "matter" is "to make a difference, to build a company that stands for people, planet and profit, to behave with character even if you don't get paid to do so -- and, in fact, even if nobody's watching, to be role models for future generations of businesses and individuals, and to have a lasting impact that instills pride in all those associated with it," then, yeah, it does matter.
As my good friend Paul Dunn, chairman of the revolutionary organization Buy1Give1, told me, the journey that matters is only 18 inches long. And, unlike what Groupon would have you believe, it's not from the heart to the head. It's from the head to the heart.
As always, I'm looking forward to your thoughts on this. Get in touch on Twitter or leave me a comment. Can't wait to hear what matters to you.