The Latest Letterman Flap: Did Olive Garden Pull Its Ads From Show?

Vague Statement From Restaurant Follows Conflicting News Reports

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CHICAGO ( -- The end of Olive Garden's relationship with "The Late Show With David Letterman" has resulted in a lesson in the art of PR opacity.

Andy Barr of the website Politico reported this afternoon that the all-you-can-eat Italian chain had pulled the balance of its 2009 TV advertising on the CBS late-night show following the host's controversial joke about Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin's eldest daughter. But a subsequent New York Times report from Bill Carter called the first story "erroneous," explaining that Olive Garden had not canceled ads, but that the advertising schedule with the Mr. Letterman's show had "expired earlier this month."

What does that actually mean? Olive Garden's official statement stops short of an actual answer. The chain's spokesman, Rich Jeffers, said that "no authorized spokesperson for the company confirmed" the information in Mr. Barr's report. Mr. Jeffers said Olive Garden's "media schedule is planned months in advance" and that the schedule was completed.

But the opaque wording at least implies dissatisfaction among diners over the chain's patronage of "The Late Show." After all, the casual-dining chain has a strong following in the conservative South and Midwest, where Ms. Palin developed a devoted following. "We take all guest concerns seriously," Mr. Jeffers said. "And, as always, we will factor those concerns in as we plan our advertising schedule in the future."

The situation has parallels to Don Imus' controversial comments in 2007. The shock jock lost Sprint, P&G, American Express, General Motors and GlaxoSmithKline, before he was pulled from the airwaves, if only temporarily. Of course, one departure doesn't always foreshadow a mass exodus. Michael Phelps lost only Kellogg as a sponsor after photos showed him with a bong. An executive close to the swimmer later said Kellogg didn't have an option to renew its contract, which was scheduled to elapse within weeks.

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