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What can the social commerce industry – brands, retailers and platform providers, learn from social commerce platform Groupon’s ‘Kenneth Cole Moment‘ at the Super Bowl this weekend (videos below)?

Incase you missed it, Groupon is being resoundingly crowd-slapped for it’s $100,000/second Super Bowl 45 – 2011 ad campaign by Crispin Porter & Bogusky/Christopher Spinal-Tap-Mockumentory Guest, poking fun at celebrities and brands that endorse causes (Tibet (Timothy Hutton), Rain Forests (Liz Hurley) and Whales (Cuba Gooding, Jr.)) that are supported by Groupon.  Just as retailer Kenneth Cole was recently crowd-slapped for a Twitter post “Millions are in Uproar in #Cairo. Rumor is they heard out new spring collection is now available at http://bit.ly/KCairo – KC.”

If Super Bowl sexism is fine – what could go wrong with using politically-charged territorial disputes in the Himalaya and environmental sacred cows trees/whales to sell group-buy coupons? (Hint, everything).

Well, the first thing we learn is not to forget to run a campaign litmus test before you go live with marketing.  Before running a campaign, dip a metaphorical litmus strip into your creative – if it comes out blue (left/liberal) or red (right/conservative), bin it.  Politics and marketing rarely mix well, and worse if you try and mix in humour, so keep your campaign Ph level politically neutral to avoid alienating people.  The litmus test might not have saved Groupon; the ads are neither left not right, just (according to many) politically offensive to just about everyone, but it’s a good reminder.

But the second thing we learn is that being controversial gets you talked about – and getting talked about is the life blood of a social brand.   Whatever its sins, the Groupon campaign was remarkable, literally, in that it is one of the few Super Bowl ads this year to jump off the screen and onto people’s lips (the Groupon ad was the most successful at getting talked about, after the (brilliant – for a legacy media ad) Eminem/Chrysler ad – see infegy graph below).  As a social brand, Groupon will know that getting onto conversational agendas is what drives awareness – and ultimately use.  The campaign has ignited conversations – for and against – eclipsing, for example, the new rebranding of Amazon-backed rival LivingSocial (thanks @erikeliason), news on Facebook Deals and Google Offers.  Sure, not all publicity is good publicity, it’s hard to position BPs recent tribulations as a PR coup, but it is usually better to part of the conversation than be ignored. Groupon is back to top-of-mind in the social commerce space.

And courting controversy can be clever; by signalling a faux-red culturally insensitive flag to the political correct, it then leads those who care enough down a rabbit hole to find a young company that takes CSR seriously and smart enough to make reflexive commentary.  Sure, most people won’t scratch the surface, but they may not be fans of political correctness anyway.  And for those that do, it’s a moot point as to whether the lure of a deal will be trumped by political correctness.  Cynics may point out that at least more football fans may now be aware of Tibet – at least where it is – and that’s a start.

Moreover, the campaign was ‘on brand’, tongue-in-cheek, irreverent and iconoclastic.  If you use Groupon, you know Groupon copy is worth reading, it’s humorous, self-depricating, whilst often poking fun at both Groupon-ers and retailers.  The humour and irreverence is part of what sets Groupon apart from the myriad of me-too social commerce platforms – it’s a USP.

So was Groupon’s Super Bowl ad a Kenneth Cole moment?  Perhaps, but we don’t think it’s as black and white as some would say.   Ultimately, social commerce works when you’re selling something worth talking about, but conversations can be stimulated and ignited by smart marketing that courts controversy with polemic points of view and personality.

Don’t be too quick to add the #fail hash tag to Groupon’s Super Bowl 2011.