Dan Primack

The latest on private equity, M&A, deals and movements — from Wall Street to Silicon Valley

Groupon and Domino's: One ad agency, two apologies

February 8, 2011: 1:10 PM ET

The advertising firm that mastered the art of preemptive apologies is behind an ad that needs to be apologized for.

When word broke late last week that Groupon had paid $3 million for a 30-second Super Bowl spot, I suggested that it was the next Pets.com. Not in terms of business model or business vitality -- Groupon reportedly is profitable, Pets.com never was -- but in terms of wasting money on tech-enabled vanity.

I was wrong. Groupon bungled its opportunity so badly that it made the sock puppet look like millions well spent. Chances are you've already seen the cringe-inducing spot -- or read about it -- but if not:

Groupon CEO Andrew Mason yesterday addressed the ensuing controversy, saying that the ad actually was intended to make fun of Groupon (not the poor suckers in Tibet). Moreover, it was designed to help Groupon expand its many charitable endeavors. Mason seems sincere, but a social marketing guru Paul Gillin noted in the blog comments:

If you have to explain a joke, then it was a bad joke in the first place. If you had simply mentioned at the end of each ad that savings could be donated to a charity, you would have spared yourself this grief. If this was a subtle attempt at humor, it was far too subtle for most of the people who watched, including me.

What was particularly interesting about Mason's explanation is the mention of advertising firm Crispin Porter & Bogusky. This is the shop best-known for its recent Domino's Pizza (DPZ) campaign, in which the company flogs itself for years of serving a crappy product. Not because its sauce contained E.coli or some other scandal, but simply because it was rolling out a new product and Cripin Porter felt an "apology" campaign would be the best course of action.

Here's how Crispin Porter's group creative director Tony Calcao explained it to Hemispheres Magazine:

"We realized that we couldn't just come out and say we have a brand new pizza, because no one's going to believe Domino's. The first thing you need to do is own up to the fact that you had to make a whole new pizza."

Got to wonder how Crispin Porter could have been so insightful about Domino's, and so completely off-target when it came to Groupon. In one case, it used the art of preemptive apology to great acclaim. In another, it caused its client to apologize after the fact.

My guess is that the next "I'm sorry" will be from Crispin Porter to Groupon...

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Dan Primack
Dan Primack
Senior Editor, Fortune

Dan Primack joined Fortune.com in September 2010 to cover deals and dealmakers, from Wall Street to Sand Hill Road. Previously, Dan was an editor-at-large with Thomson Reuters, where he launched both peHUB.com and the peHUB Wire email service. In a past journalistic life, Dan ran a community paper in Roxbury, Massachusetts. He currently lives just outside of Boston.

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