22 March 2012

Olive Garden Review a Rorschach Test for Marketers, Journalists

A small-town restaurant review went viral and promptly became a national Rorschach Test for marketers and journalists.

If you’re a card-carrying member of the MSM, Digerati, Technorati or just a Flack or a Huckster, you’ve read or heard about the quaint review of a local Olive Garden and how Gawker’s Emma Carmichael featured it in a snarky post. Clearly, Carmichael found it amusing that an octogenarian prairie journalist reviewed a chain restaurant.

The comments section under the Gawker piece is the Rorschach Test for marketers and journalists. Some say Gawker gave us a “rude, spiteful” example of Big City superiority complex. Others claim the review was laughable even if you hail from Grand Forks, North Dakota. It’s a lively discussion.

3 Reasons Marketers Should Really Care

We all stopped to look, just like passing an accident on the highway. But what’s the significance? Why should we care?

1. We’re living in our own little world. OK, I’m not really going out on a limb with that statement. We can smirk all we want about what the Grand Forks Herald publishes, but much of it would be alien to many of us. That’s troubling because we’re selling to an audience we don’t understand. It doesn’t have to be that way, however. We need to get out more. It’s worth noting that Gawker gleefully “reported” on a provincial Olive Garden review in 2008. (Is the idea file really that empty?)

2. Journalism has gone Pro-Am. It may seem naïve to review a chain restaurant, but Olive Garden in Grand Forks lies at the intersection of It Matters To People There and Newspapers Have To Fill Editorial Space. Media owners aren’t in the media business, they’re in the advertising business – content aids and abets the process of selling ad space.

3. What Viral Is. Marilyn Hegarty has been writing restaurant reviews for 30 years and this month the Internet finally caught up with her. Gawker essentially re-ran an article from four years ago and it took off….in our own little world. This was a popular story among marketers and journalists but Grand Forks and Sioux City may not have noticed.

Putting snark on top of snark, the Atlantic concluded “The Secret to Food-Writing Success: Review the Olive Garden.” My conclusion is different. Someone who doesn’t get out much decided to run a story that her publication had done before, featuring a sincere personal account that went viral on that someone’s ability to imbue it with irony. The audience in which it went viral was really just people like Emma Carmichael. Marilyn Hegarty by all accounts took it in stride.

This confounds those of us who work in modern communications, but it shouldn’t. For every Subservient Chicken there’s a Grand Forks Olive Garden that nobody in a black turtleneck could have created. Come on, colleagues. We’re smelling our own exhaust. Let’s get out a little.


  1. Great points, Steve. I once got into a bit of a Twitter back-and-forth with A Very Well Known Creative Director who admitted he'd never been to Costco, but said, "I have been to Walmart" as if it was proof he can lower himself to mingle with the commonfolk.

    I think this review spread because she plays it so straight, and we're simply not used to writing that doesn't feel snarky or overly pompous. And it is a reminder for people who work in advertising and marketing that our audience doesn't always wanna be (and rarely is) hip, trendy, or move on to the latest thing.

    The reality is, you can have a decent meal at an Olive Garden, and for many, many people it's a special treat--not cheap, either. I suspect most of the people who dumped on this review, or the reviewer, wouldn't last a week in Grand Forks, North Dakota. Whereas really savvy marketing people would learn a ton spending some time there.

  2. I've often found the snide comments people make about certain consumers to be troubling.

    First of all, it shows how out-of-touch most folks in our industry are with the everyday American. The 99%. Or at least the 90%. It also shows how little they understand what is important to real people in the real world. Things like a nice meal at a local restaurant, a community event, even devotion to religion are the subject of ridicule.

    A co-worker recently sneered when I mentioned shopping at Aldi, as if the food there were infested with disease. "They don't even HAVE an Aldi in my neighborhood! Why would you shop there?" I was asked.

    "Because I like shopping there." I replied. She had never even been IN one, yet had decided it was inferior.

    I come from immigrant stock. From people who valued hard work as much as they valued their family. And I'm not ashamed to admit that I LIKE Olive Garden. I like Golden Corral. I like Aldi. I like Kmart. I like Dollar Tree and Family Dollar. Heck, I like going to the Swap-o-rama every now and then.

    Does that make me inferior? I don't think so. I think it makes me normal. I also think that not forgetting what is normal, and not forgetting what matters most, makes me better at my job. I don't have to work as hard to figure out what the commonfolk are thinking. Instead, I just make sure I stay one of them.

  3. @Dan Goldgeier:

    "Really savvy marketing people would learn a ton spending some time (in Grand Forks)."

    Thank you for hitting the nail on the head. That's exactly what I was driving at: We have a lot to learn.


    Mrs. Ad Majorem and I related to your comment because we patronize the same businesses -- as opposed to making patronizing comments about them. Thanks for showing us an example of how we can drop the pose and learn by doing.

  4. People still wear black turtlenecks?

  5. Not since Steve Jobs passed on. You're right. I'm open to other suggestions in Wardrobes of Creative Class Stereotypes, so please go right ahead.