How Humor Sells Silly Daily Deals No One Needs

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Everybody knows that sex sells. Groupon is showing the world that bizarre-but-carefully-inoffensive writing can do the same.

The NY Times offers an insider view of editorial offices of daily deal giant Groupon. Why? Because while Groupon has inspired herds of copycats and new trends in the daily deal market, what really seems to set Groupon apart from the pack is the writing accompanying its daily deals.

Or “the Voice,” as it’s called by the writers and editors in charge of daily deal copy.

What is “the Voice”? A quiz given to new Groupon writers provides insight. The newbies are asked:

The kitchen is statistically the most dangerous room in a home because it contains the highest concentration of knives, open flames and …
A. cereal killers
B. spoiled fruit
C. mother-in-laws
D. pots of semi-living lobsters

The Groupon answer (D) helps answer that earlier question, regarding what is and isn’t “the Voice.” The lobster bit is sufficiently zany to be hip and funny, while the other answers are either lame (puns, spoiled fruit) or offensive to would-be customers (mother-in-laws buy daily deals too).

What I found most interesting is the extent to which Groupon tries to avoid offending anyone and everyone. Usually, when something’s funny, somebody is being made fun of and winds up being offended. But Groupon stays away from that sort of humor. Or at least it does now, after, as the Times writes:

A write-up for a teeth-whitening service said it was “equivalent to being punched by God twice.” Angry letters followed. The new edict is to substitute Zeus for God, Greek mythology being deemed suitably innocuous.

I’m confused as to what “the Voice” really is. Presumably, when the company places as ad during one of the most-watched TV events of the year, it would be sure to nail the right Voice. But Groupon’s Tibet-mocking Superbowl commercial was certainly more offensive than funny.

Perhaps Groupon was still finding its voice at the time.

Even more than “the Voice,” what puzzles me is why Groupon’s wacky brand of ad copy makes consumers bite. Here’s an example for a daily deal involving an inherently unfunny, plain un-fun topic, dental work:

“The Tooth Fairy is a burglarizing fetishist specializing in black-market ivory trade, and she must be stopped. Today‚Äôs Groupon helps keep teeth in mouths and out of the hands of maniacal, winged phantasms.”

OK, so it’s sufficiently goofy and provides a chuckle. But do you really want to associate offbeat goofball humor with someone scraping your teeth and sticking needles in your mouth?

In a survey I don’t believe, half of daily deal customers said their purchases were needs (like the dentist), and half were wants. But come on: The vast majority of daily deals are wants. In a year-long marketing stunt that just ended, Groupon challenged a “Groupawn” to live off of its deals for a full 12 months, and the ‘Pawn’s 10 favorite Groupons include cooking classes, driving a stock car, vocal lessons, sea kayak rentals, and hot air balloon rides. By any definition, are any of these “needs”?

The point is that Groupon’s “Voice” probably works best when the product or service being sold is fun and totally non-essential. Silly humor, for silly purchases.

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