Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Who Put the Olive in Olive Garden?

Last summer, my husband and I were fortunate in having our 16-year old niece join us for a two-week trek through Italy, a destination she chose because she loves Italian food. Fair enough … the art, the fashion and the fountains were a lovely side-show.

A commercial for Olive Garden came on TV the night before we left. Katie jokingly asked if we could visit the Culinary Institute. I expressed doubt that there was such a place, but according to the Olive Garden’s website, it’s quite real and alive. “Olive Garden’s Culinary Institute of Tuscany is located in the 11th century village of Riserva di Fizzano. Every year more than 100 Olive Garden chefs and managers travel to our Culinary Institute to learn authentic cooking secrets from head chefs and top culinary instructors."

Whether the “Institute" is for real or not has been bandied about online since Olive Garden used it as a focal point of its ads beginning in 2008. The ad must do well and consumers must feel it’s a plus for the brand (I’m sure they’ve bench-marked and continually perception-test) as it was on again last night, during Glee, I think.

Today, Advertising Age posted a fun blog that the three people who believed there really was such a place would be shocked to find out that the “Culinary Institute" is not an Actual Institute.’s Newsfeed checked the claim and found that while there is a gorgeous rustic spread in Riserva di Fizzano, it isn’t actually owned by Olive Garden and cooking really isn’t taught to any Olive Garden chefs. It’s simply a fabulous setting where Olive Garden’s high-performing managers can drink great wine, eat some authentic Italian cooking, tour the countryside and relax a bit … albeit in the off-season when the resort is closed to the public. In other words, a junket.

Does anyone really care?

The AdAge story and links to were picked up in the Twitter-sphere and Blog-o-sphere today. What’s fun to read are the multitudes of comments posted mostly by consumers, some by advertising types. If we were to consider only these postings, one could conclude that food advertisers have lost all credibility. Yet most Americans couldn’t care less. If they like the food, they’ll still go there/eat that… respect for the brand takes a distant back seat. At least among these remarks, Americans seem to think if folks were misled, it was because they were victims of their own naiveté, not the advertiser. And they scorn those who admit to being duped.

As food marketers and manufacturers, we all look at consumer data and (I hope) try to do right by it. Ours is a major responsibility that encompasses a multitude of issues other than taste … obesity, diabetes, food safety, and on and on.

But really, how important is integrity in the consumer’s mind? And would we even want to test the question? I’m afraid of the answer.

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