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Groupon axes controversial ad campaign

Actor Timothy Hutton appears in Groupon's Super Bowl ad, which raised the ire of Tibet advocates.
Actor Timothy Hutton appears in Groupon's Super Bowl ad, which raised the ire of Tibet advocates.
  • Groupon founder Andrew Mason says tongue-in-cheek ads were meant to mock Groupon and advertising
  • Mason says Groupon didn't mean to offend people
  • Site lets Groupon customers donate to Tibet, Greenpeace and other charities
  • Ads were directed by "Best In Show" director Christopher Guest

(CNN) -- Groupon founder Andrew Mason has pulled a series of controversial ads that began running during the Super Bowl, saying "one thing is clear -- our ads offended a lot of people."

The announcement was on the company's official blog Thursday.

"We hate that we offended people, and we're very sorry that we did -- it's the last thing we wanted," Mason said. "We've listened to your feedback, and since we don't see the point in continuing to anger people, we're pulling the ads."

Mason said some of the ads may run again on Friday before the advertising schedule is fully rescinded.

In three spots that ran before, during and after Sunday's game, commercials that appeared to promote humanitarian and environmental causes -- most notably Chinese government oppression in Tibet -- swerved to become tongue-in-cheek pitches for Groupon deals.

Critics, many of whom took to Facebook and Twitter to complain, said the ads, directed by actor-director Christopher Guest of "This is Spinal Tap" and "Best In Show" fame, made light of serious situations.

Super Bowl ad winners and losers
  • Groupon Inc.
  • Advertising
  • Tibet

"We thought we were poking fun at ourselves, but clearly the execution was off and the joke didn't come through," Mason said in the blog Thursday. "I personally take responsibility; although we worked with a professional ad agency, in the end, it was my decision to run the ads."

In the Tibet ad, actor Timothy Hutton bemoans the human-rights situation in Tibet before quipping from a Tibetan restaurant, "But they still whip up an amazing fish curry!"

In the two others, actor Cuba Gooding Jr. bemoans the world's dwindling number of whales before talking up a discounted whale-watching cruise and actress Elizabeth Hurley bemoans imperiled Amazon rainforests before promoting a deal on a Brazilian wax (adding that "not all deforestation is bad").

Any backlash against the ads didn't appear to have any big impact on the popularity of Groupon's iPhone app, which was the 10th-most popular free application Friday morning in Apple's App Store, although it was No. 3 two days earlier.

Mason notes that Groupon began as The Point, an activism-based site, and that the Web page for the Groupon ads offers a link to donate to each of the causes that the ads spoof.

"We took this approach knowing that, if anything, they would bring more funding and support to the highlighted causes," he wrote on the blog Tuesday.

Mason said on Thursday that Groupon expects to "net over $500,000" for the charities.

Groupon is matching the amount its customers donate to the causes, up to $100,000 each.

In a blog post, Greenpeace biologist John Hocevar (who also, coincidentally, founded Students for a Free Tibet), praised the ads.

"Greenpeace is happily participating in the campaign," he wrote. "The truth is that the 'Save the Money' campaign and the commercial are really helping us save the whales."

Mason said this week that, rather than making fun of charitable causes, the ads were intended to make light of Groupon itself, and advertising in general.

"Our ads highlight the often trivial nature of stuff on Groupon when juxtaposed against bigger world issues ... ," he wrote.

Based on comments posted on the blog this week, some Groupon customers were satisfied with the explanation -- but not all.

"I do actually appreciate knowing the backstory here. I agree that the idea isn't exactly horrible, especially as you've laid it out," one reader wrote. "But the finished, as-aired Tibet commercial was horrible. It did trivialize the cause. That you didn't mean to be offensive doesn't mean you weren't."

Mason's blog didn't contain a direct apology, but certainly took a stab at an explaination.

"To those who were offended, I feel terrible that we made you feel bad," Mason said. "While we've always been a little quirky, we certainly aren't trying to be the kind of company that builds its brand on creating controversy -- we think the quality of our product is a much stronger message."

CNN's Doug Gross contributed to this report.


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