Effective Ads, Dreadful Food

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Advertiser: Red Lobster
Agency: Euro RSCG Tatham McConnaughy, Chicago
Title: Guided Tour
Rating: 3.0 stars

[RED LOBSTER, USA] -- This isn't just any restaurant. We are sitting here -- thinking about the new campaign from Euro RSCG Tatham McConnaughy, Chicago -- admiring the ropes and buoys, nets and lobster traps and all the nice little touches that a make Darden Corp. property such an elegant dining experience.

Check out the Wet Naps -- co-branded! "Red Lobster" is printed right on them!

We came here because we admire the new spots, which attempt to up the ante for Red Lobster, a brand pretty much synonymous with chain-restaurant declasse. So associated is this company with Middle American kitsch that it is enshrined in a book title, Joe Queenan's vicious Red Lobster, White Trash and the Blue Lagoon.

Allow us to quote: "Red Lobster, I quickly learned, was a chain geared to people a little bit too upscale for Roy Rogers. ... Red Lobster patrons were bedecked in their best windbreakers and their very finest polyester trousers. ... The Red Lobster menu consisted almost entirely of batter cunningly fused with marginally aquatic foodstuffs. ... But, in reality, everything tasted exactly like Kentucky Fried Chicken. ... Admiral's Feast, my ass."

We'll stop there, because thereafter Queenan began to get a little nasty.

Move up in class
What got our attention in the new campaign was its attempt to get past the downscale stereotype and position itself not as a luscious 'n' fun feasteria but as a place for, you know, sort of ... cuisine. The new spots have snatches of the obligatory in-store scene, with patrons grinning wildly and snapping Snow Crab legs invitingly 1 inch from the camera lens, but the emphasis is definitely on its move up in class.

That move is personified by a chef, all done up in white chef's clothing, and exemplified by a new menu item: crab portobello. But maybe the most significant evidence of the attempt to notch things up to middlebrow is the campaign's sense of irony. It's actually witty. Not Oscar Wilde witty, maybe, but also not the thing you'd expect for the dress-windbreaker crowd.

One spot takes place on a tour boat, where the guide is speaking on the P.A.:

"If you look to the starboard side of the boat," he says, "you'll see the natural habitat of the snow crab. Now, an interesting fact about certain species of crab is that they can be stuffed into marinated portobello mushrooms, drizzled with a beurre-blanc sauce..."

Quizzical boat captain
The tour boat captain looks at him quizzically. "You're, uh, you're not the regular guide, are you?"

Our hero, whom we now see in his chef's togs, says, "No, actually I'm a chef at Red Lobster. I just do this for fun. ... Ladies and gentle..."

Then the voice-over: "At Red Lobster, we love to prepare crab in fresh ways. So come in now for Festival of Crab. Enjoy crab portobello, crab Cobb salad and more. All at friendly prices.

"Red Lobster. Go overboard."

That's a 30-second spot. A :15 is better. We see three people sitting in an anteroom, identified by an onscreen super as U.S. Patent Office, Washington, D.C. One woman sits there with what looks like a laser gun of some kind. The guy next to her is holding a cardboard box with a sticker on it bearing the symbol for radioactivity. The third person is our chef friend. He's holding a Red Lobster entree, and the other people are looking at him oddly. He leans over and whispers, "Crab portobello."

Entrée conclusion: 'It all sucks'
Hey, it's funny. So, we were just curious, because no matter how well the ads sell the notion of grown-up cuisine, the actual goods must confirm the claim. So here we are, doing our best to ignore the gargantuan coil of rope on the wall in front of us, and the menu of deep-fried-damn-near-everything. We ordered the snow crab legs and an appetizer of crab portobello.

And it all sucks.

You can't exactly ruin crab legs, but these have been thawed and reheated far beyond luscious snapability. They're basically stringy. And the crab portobello -- well, let's put it this way. If we go into the kitchen, we have no expectation of finding an actual chef. The salty, mushy dish tastes like hors d'oeuvres at a big, bad corporate reception, more manufactured than cooked.

As we sit here, however, we can't feel cheated or upset. Red Lobster is entitled to be Red Lobster, even when purporting to transcend its immutable Red Lobsterness. The folks who eat here can savor the crab mush and -- having been assured by the allegation of beurre-blanc sauc -- believe they're dining. So give the chef his patent, but make him change the name. Our suggestion:

Crab starboardobello.