Just how bad did Groupon poop on the golden goose?

Exhibiting much better judgment than when they decided to run them in the first place, Groupon has pulled all of the spots in the TV campaign it launched during the Super Bowl

These already infamous spots featured celebrities who started talking about a serious charitable cause, then veered abruptly into a rap about how Groupon could help save money on everyday items. The spot I saw featured Timothy Hutton talking about Tibetan refugees, only to segue into the virtues of a Tibetan restaurant in Chicago running a Groupon offer.

I thought it was terrible and offensive. And dumb. Learning later that the spots were supposed to drive to a site where viewers could contribute to the causes being joked about only made it seem dumber, because there was no indication of this in the ads. At all. Take it from me, if you’re going to act like a jerk to get a laugh, you better let the jerkee know it’s all in fun.

This was Groupon’s first national mass media advertising. Did the blunder cost them? This piece by Therese Poletti on Marketwatch.com says it’s a matter of debate, but quotes a communications exec who says, ““It’s all good publicity for them. … The ad did what it was supposed to do.”

But is it that simple? Groupon’s leadership turned down a $6 billion buyout from Google. That means they think they are worth more than $6 billion. But that lofty valuation has yet to be tested in any equities market, so aside from some servers, staplers and potted plants, it’s mostly potential equity at this point.

Millions of underwater homeowners can tell you about the stability of potential equity and how it’s vulnerable to the fickle confidence of potential buyers. By this measure, Groupon is almost certainly worth less now than before those ads, for two reasons. First, many potential investors will likely assume that Groupon has damaged its reputation, at least short term (and is there any other kind of thinking on Wall Street anymore?). Second, investors are likely to question Groupon’s executive leadership for authorizing this debacle in the first place. It’s a big misstep for a company who thinks its worth billions of other peoples’ money.

Just suppose Groupon hadn’t dismissed Google’s offer. Suppose negotiations were underway the week before the Super Bowl, the $6 billion figure had been agreed upon in principle, then everyone goes home for the weekend, expecting the deal to be signed on Monday.

If you’re Larry and Sergey and you see those ads, it’d be like someone just put a big dent in the front fender of the sports car you agreed to buy. Sure it can be repaired, but would you want to pay full price for it come Monday morning? No.

Groupon is already fighting a slew of copycat businesses. And as a new phenomenon, there’s no proof that consumers won’t fall out of love with the idea, or fall more in love with some copycat competitor with a newer innovative twist. From a marketing communications standpoint, their number one job right now should be to preserve the perception of their worth. On that score, they screwed the pooch.

Now, I’m not willing to bet that this is ultimately going to be anything more than a bump in the road for Groupon. But even if they lose a little leverage in the short term, that’s money being vaporized. I thought Groupon was supposed encourage saving money. But I suppose for the owners of a business that makes fistfuls of cash selling nothing, it’s easy come, easy go.