Despite the buzz around social shopping Websites and the market’s rapid growth this past year, Groupon and LivingSocial were two of the lesser-known brands to advertise during last night’s Super Bowl. The social shopping sites, which focus on providing users with deals-of-the day, both dished out close to $3 million for spots running in and in-front of the game – with Groupon running two additional spots around the game.

The price tag of $3 million may seem outlandish for a mid to late stage start-up, but with both companies receiving recent infusions of new cash, it proved too difficult for either company to turn down the allure of putting its brand in front of an audience of more than 100 million engaged viewers. But were the spots  worth the hefty price tag?

Groupon certainly won the buzz war online and at the water cooler this morning with its risky Public Service Announcement inspired campaign – but not necessarily in a good way. Its spots, and specifically its “Tibet” spot produced by Crispin Porter + Bogusky,  appeared to be public service announcements to support causes (fighting against the plight of the Tibetan people, helping rain forests, protecting whales) – only to morph into ads for the group buying site. While the tactic created a lot of chatter it has been met with some harsh responses from critics and consumers that have labeled the spot as tasteless.

In fact, Brand Bowl 2011, which tracked the online buzz created by this year’s super bowl ads, found that Groupon’s “Tibet” spot was met with the most negative reaction on Twitter out of all the Super Bowl ads. The criticism even forced a carefully worded blog post from the company’s CEO this afternoon, although it stopped short of being a full blown apology.

LivingSocial on the other hand opted for a slightly less-risky ad in its offline advertising debut. The spot played on the humor of a manly-man finding his “true self” through the deals he discovered through LivingSocial. While the ad drew far less buzz than Groupon’s controversial spots it may have accomplished more than enough in simply forcing Groupon to up its Super Bowl ad buy.

The question remains whether the big money ads will prove effective for either company in creating more than just buzz when it comes to calculating leads generated with new users. To date, both companies have excelled in growing their businesses through social networks, word of mouth, friendly recommendations and targeted online ad buys. Will the vast net of a Super Bowl ad allow them to meet the growth objectives laid out by their new investments?  Do you still NEED to do major television advertising today to grow into a major consumer brand (albeit a social one)? What do you think?

This post was first published on March Communications’ blog, PR Nonsense, by Juliana Allen.