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12.29.10

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Absurd Ditties

Why do Groupon's descriptions make no sense?

By Daedalus Howell


Deal-of-the-day website Groupon might have passed on Google's multibillion dollar acquisition offer, but it hasn't forgone using the online search engine and advertising empire's document-hosting services. In particular, Google Docs hosts a memorandum entitled the "Public Groupon Voice Guide," which details, with embarrassing clarity, "principles" apparently "intended to help new and applying writers learn Groupon's signature writing style." No doubt all commerce sites need web copy, but Groupon evidently needs its copy to adhere to a house style so purple it suggests a necrotizing soft-tissue infection.

Consider this recent Groupon write-up for a discounted stay at Sonoma bed and breakfast MacArthur Place: "Statistically, the home is the place you're most likely to fall asleep under a running lawn mower, get sexually harassed by a pet or suffer a heart attack while trying to fit into a heated oven. Escape that horrible deathtrap with today's Groupon for a stay for two at MacArthur Place in Sonoma."

Yes, this was Groupon's actual verbatim description (it's since been changed).

Groupon, a portmanteau that grafts "group" and "coupon," operates as its name suggests—by partnering with local retailers to offer its subscribers discounted fees when a predetermined number of people sign up for the deal. It's a form of assurance contract whereby all participants benefit, which, theoretically, mitigates the risk for the retailer who can leverage the coupon as a quantity discount. Of course, Groupon takes a cut of resulting sales.

What differentiates Groupon from the horde of copycats in this sector is its deft branding and user-friendly interface, which since 2008 has attracted over 40 million users as well as a salivating Google that 30-year-old Groupon CEO Andrew Mason (a recent Forbes poster child) famously rebuffed this month.

So how is it that Mason feels confident turning down $6 billion after a mere two years in business? Perhaps the answer lies in the glib lingo his company prefers over the more sober corporate-speak that defines the parlance of Silicon Valley. According to the document, Groupon has a sense of humor—or at least something it believes is humor. Under the title "Humor Devices that work well in Groupon Voice" are such axioms as "absurd images," "sweeping, dramatic nonsense" and "the absurd narrator."

These are buttressed by examples like "Humankind has been playing with fire for years; now we can harness the bronzing essence of the fiery sun in a gentle mist, proving once and for all our dominance over the weak, inanimate solar system." Why? Because one person's absurdity is another's marketing copy, and Groupon has diligently codified its secret sauce, lest applying writers misinterpret the meaning of "absurd." Others include "hypothetical worlds/outcomes" such as this chestnut: "Without goals, no one would unicycle the Appalachian Trail or train a flock of carrier pigeons to deliver meat pies to unsuspecting haberdashers."

Though Groupon's "signature writing style" might challenge one's definition of both "writing" and "style," its fake proverbs, mixed metaphors and intentionally errant take on history ("When strongmen of the past wanted to show their superhuman brawn, they coddled kettlebells or other potentially stronger strongmen") are arguably "signature," if not downright annoying to other online scribes.

On her blog The Conical Glass, Bay Area indie record label owner Sue Trowbridge has rued the "Grouponese" as nausea-inducing and "yucky." In a post entitled "The Worst Writing Job in the World," Trowbridge recounts researching the genesis of Groupon's tortured prose only to discover a help-wanted ad on its site that invites applicants to submit a sample write-up for a shot at a $40,000 salary and possible relocation to its Chicago headquarters. Ever game, Trowbridge attempted her own Groupon-styled translation of a favorite restaurant newsletter but gave up after some twisted verbiage. "Ugh, I feel dirty now," she signed off. "I think I'd rather make my living writing those fake letters to Penthouse."

For some, including Trowbridge, penning garrulous crap for a web discounter might epitomize the death of modern prose. For others, it might be a dream job with full benefits. Though Andrew Mason's business might be changing the face of local commerce, its colorful product plugs likely won't affect the world of letters anymore than jingles have affected music. That said, if Mason added stock options to his benefit package and courted another multibillion dollar acquisition deal, be assured more than a few professional writers might consider tossing his salad with the croutons of capital whilst forging phonemes on the velveteen anvil of loathsome lingo.

Daedalus Howell offers group discounts at FMRL.com.


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