Will the Letterman-Palin Clash Take a Bite Out of Olive Garden?

palin - lettermanLate last week, the Web site Politico ran a story claiming that Olive Garden was pulling its ads during The Late Show with David Letterman because of the late-night comedian's recent joke about Sarah Palin's teenage daughter. The story quoted a letter that the company's guest relations manager apparently sent to "Letterman's critics" (no details on who or how many), apologizing for the joke and insisting that it didn't represent the chain's values.

The company has denied cancelling any remaining ads, explaining that the campaign had simply expired. But the timing of its finish was, well, curious.

The Letterman-Palin kerfuffle is unusually spicy territory for Darden, which we profile in the July-August issue of Fast Company (Why America Is Addicted to Olive Garden). It's one of the quiet giants in business—the largest full-service restaurant company in the country and one of the few bright spots in an industry hit hard by the recession, yet virtually unknown outside of the restaurant world. Darden owns and operates three of the largest casual-dining chains, Olive Garden, Red Lobster, and LongHorn Steakhouse and generates $6.7 billion in annual revenue.

Its business is understanding and pleasing its customers. Because the company was once owned by consumer product giant General Mills, it conducts an extraordinary amount of research about service and menu items and customer perceptions of the brand. So it must have made Darden executives squirm to hear a protestor last week outside Letterman's studio declaring on Fox News that he would no longer eat at Olive Garden. Or to read comments to the Politico story along the same lines (at last count, there were more than 1,350 comments, a predictably charged mix of voices). The timing certainly isn't ideal; Darden is busy preparing its earnings announcement tomorrow.

This is the double-edged sword of advertising during late-night comedy shows. Companies target the audience they're after, but their ads may occasionally follow off-color jokes or political humor that is the polar opposite of their brand. So be it. Customers know how the game works: Advertisers don't approve or write the material. So they shouldn't be blamed for lousy jokes any more than they should get credit for funny ones.

Related: Why America is Addicted to Olive Garden

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  • Marc Fey

    It is too easy for you to say, "They shouldn't be blamed for off-color jokes"--I think a cop out at the end of the day.

    When the advertising that these companies are doing keep these shows on the air, they indirectly support the content. Are they responsible for the joke? No. Are they responsible to re-evaluate if their advertising should be paired with a particular show's content? Absolutely.

    This is the dance that advertisers, studio heads, and consumers work out, one message at a time, which shapes a company's brand in the mind of the public. At the end of the day what really happens is that we, the consumer, hold the media accountable to a higher standard than simply getting a laugh at any cost, and the advertiser from selling a product at any cost. When it works, we are all richer.

  • Ed Powell

    ----- Original Message ----
    From: Olive Garden Guest Relations <olivegarden@olivegarden.com>
    To: XXXXX
    Sent: Monday, June 22, 2009 9:55:34 AM
    Subject: Olive Garden Reply #Letterman-618444

    June 21, 2009

    Dear Mr. XXXXXX:

    Thank you for contacting us and sharing your views.

    Our advertising on The Late Show with David Letterman ended earlier this month. We take all guest concerns seriously. And, as always, we will factor those concerns in as we plan our advertising schedule in the future.


    Sherri Bruen
    Guest Relations Manager</olivegarden@olivegarden.com>

  • Ed Powell

    Sarah encouraged Bristol to become the national spokesperson for Teenage Abstinence. Now THAT'A FUNNY! Kind of like closing the barn door after all the cows got out (or in this case, IN.)

  • Ed Powell

    What's the source of this conflict? She DOES look like a slutty flight attendant!!

  • Michael Cylkowski

    The only Bolognas associated with the Olive Garden decision are Robertson (above comment) & Letterman.

  • Iggy Dalrymple

    "The company has denied cancelling any remaining ads, explaining that the campaign had simply expired. But the timing of its finish was, well, curious."

    OK, so I won't eat at Olive Garden or watch Letterman.

  • David Osedach

    By being the "only" advertiser to drop Letterman Olive Garden gets even more publicity. They can't lose - it's a master stroke!

  • Greg Robertson

    I thought their Bologna Alfredo was the only reason to avoid the Olive Darden, but if they reschedule their advertising because some right-wingnut gets upset on Faux News, I lose even more respect for the restaurant chain. All the more reason to frequent real Italian restaurants.