The 2011 Super Bowl will leave a mark in the advertising history books because two advertisers issued apologies shortly after the game due to public backlash.
HomeAway and Groupon have both released statements in response to the public reaction to their Super Bowl ads. The HomeAway ad featured a baby flying into a plate glass window. Groupon’s spot portrayed the sad state of the Tibetan people before noting that Groupon has great discounts at restaurants that serve Tibetan food.
Both ads received widespread condemnation. Visit either brand’s Facebook site to get a flavor of the very intense backlash.
Both companies are trying to contain the damage.
HomeAway CEO Brian Sharples issued a statement on Facebook: “…we’re deeply sorry that the ads offended some and hurt others.” The company is modifying its advertising.
Groupon CEO Andrew Mason wrote in a Facebook post: “The last thing we wanted was to offend our customers – it’s bad business and it’s not where our hearts are.”
This is extraordinary. Both companies spent millions of dollars buying a spot on the Super Bowl, worked very hard to create great advertising and now are forced to apologize in a bid to limit the damage.
So how did this happen?
I suspect there were three main causes. First, the pressure to stand out on the Super Bowl is huge. The first thing we look for in the Kellogg ADPLAN framework is attention. In a bid to stand out, advertisers sometimes make bad decisions, pursuing something that is creatively unique but also edgy. This was clearly the problem for the HomeAway spot; the ad was shocking.
Second, advertisers can forget that Super Bowl advertising gets incredible scrutiny. The reason people advertise on the Super Bowl because the advertising receives a lot of focus. But this can also be a problem. Marketing efforts that might be fine otherwise are magnified on the Super Bowl. I think this is clearly what happened to Groupon; the company confused a Super Bowl ad with the witty and sometimes cheeky descriptions it sends along with email offers.
Third, it is all too easy to ignore problems. Researchers at Kellogg and other schools have studied this extensively; we know that people tend to gloss over issues and play down negative news. Both Homeaway and Groupon claim to have tested their spots and didn’t uncover any issue. But I suspect the feedback was there; the advertising team just ignored it.
The big learning for future Super Bowl advertisers is this: consider the downside. Don’t take a risk with your brand in a bid to be creatively different; a Super Bowl ad can build a brand, but executed poorly it can also cause a lot of damage.