Is Groupon Wagging the Dog?

As I watched Super Bowl XLV this past Sunday, I mourned the absence of my beloved New England Patriots . In fact, so shrouded in black was I, that I contemplated just viewing Puppy Bowl VII on Animal Planet and then calling it a night. With my wife, some friends, and a box of Kleenex (Not for tears, folks, I had a cold.) I begrudgingly spent three hours paying attention to two teams I couldn’t care less about. However, as a PR guy, I was keenly interested in what advertising master opuses would greet me during the commercial breaks.

Rather than offer my two cents about the quality of ads , I would like to offer a brief comment related to one brand in particular. The set controversial ads from deal aggregator, Groupon , both captured attention and raised ire. Now, in the interest of honesty, I must admit that I laughed heartily at the much vilified “Tibet” ad that featured Timothy Hutton . But, after reflecting on the number of people adversely affected by the conflict over Tibet, I do feel bad about my knee-jerk reaction to chuckle.

The outrage over Groupon’s approach to eye-catching advertisements is alive and well on the blogosphere . One fellow in particular is a professional colleague of mine and noted author, Paul Gillin . Since Sunday, Paul has covered this story and Groupon’s reaction on his blog with the greatest of skill and zeal. His strong criticism of Groupon is well-reasoned, supported by the facts, and got me thinking.

I sent him a note yesterday morning to compliment him on his reporting and to inject my own cynicism into the mix. The conspiracy theorist in me suspects that Groupon expected a level of general discontent from its Super Bowl ads. In fact, I wonder if they hoped for it. Following the adage that “all publicity is good publicity,” the cynical me adduces that Groupon maximized its advertising spend with the stickiness of public controversy . While most of us have forgotten about the Doritos pug commercial , we’re still actively debating the judgment of Groupon executives – and I’m typing the umpteenth blog post since Monday morning.

Now, rather than debate the merits of Groupon’s strategy or actions here, I do think that this episode provides an opportunity for marketers (specifically, advertisers and PR types) to contemplate the ethics of our work. Do we have an ethical code to guide our actions and bound our creativity? The leading public relations trade association, PRSA , says yes and maintains a Code of Ethics that includes the following: “Work to strengthen the public’s trust in the profession.”

Assuming, arguendo, that Groupon calculated the fallout from Super Bowl XLV, executives would seem to have turned a blind eye to strengthening the public’s trust. A wag the dog technique preys upon that very trust for a visibility gain.

Paul Gillin

So, I commend communications pros like Paul Gillin for covering this topic and provoking thought about ethics in communications. For the most part, our industry is largely unregulated by external agencies. This means that in order for the industry to retain a favorable, trusted reputation, professionals need to keep watch over peers and offer critique when appropriate. Props to Mr. Gillin and others, who are covering the story and asking the questions that need to be addressed.