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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