31 January 2010

In Which the Olive Garden is Lectured and Dissected

So, I've decided to use this blog as both an academic outlet for our Visual Research Methods class and any other academic or critical thought that compels me to digitally scribble. In the vein of the latter, a raucous attack on the Olive Garden:

Anyone who knows me, knows one thing: I hate almost nothing in this sweet, sweet world...with, possibly exclusively, the exception of Olive Garden commercials. Seriously, what a bunch of hammy, corny, and mind-numbingly offensive wastes of ad space. Am I offended as an Italian-American by the company's "When You're Here, You're Family" hokum? Not really, but then again neither The Sopranos nor The Jersey Shore much bothered my particular sensibilities.

What is interesting--and I wonder if this is what offends me--about the Olive Garden ads is the way in our ultra-hip and winking era they play it SO straight. In other words, what is perhaps so minacious about the Olive Garden ads is the way they are of no consequence whatsoever, allowing us to give another corporate chain a pass. For instance, who among us doesn't ultimately say, "Sure, the ads are cheesy, but they do have that good endless soup, salad, and breadstick deal"? It's time we don't let them off the hook so easily.

Now, I don't mean to be an elitist, but I have lost all restraint and perspective with this particular issue. Yeah, okay, that endless soup/salad thing is a deal, but otherwise the food at this establishment tastes no better than what can be bought in a can or from the frozen food section. And, what's worse, some quick Internet research shows me that there is no cost benefit to be gained by eating at the Olive Garden; $10.25 for spaghetti and meatballs (pasta, by the way, costs approximately a dollar a pound in the store), or $14.50 for something "cleverly" and "authentically" dubbed "Lasagna Classico" (you could buy a substantially larger dinner at the pricey Whole Foods, or even a couple at the far cheaper Trader Joe's). Also, if it's true, as those particularly irksome ads from a while back suggested, that the Olive Garden sends its chefs to Italy--some archaic cooking institute in the Tuscan hills, I believe--then we really have a problem, and cost is just the tip of that iceberg. But enough aggressive ranting, let us address this issue in a semiotic manner. First, watch this ad:

What I specifically find fascinating? A couple things, but let's start with the moment when the woman who is searching for her "date" mentions that (aside from being handsome) his shoes are likely not laced up. First, note the "ooh" by the hostess, that follows the woman's mention that she is looking for her "date"--clearly the Olive Garden endorses human-on-human intimate encounters within its establishment (as it suggests, "Please have your dates here, lovers' cash will suffice as well as any!"). Additionally, and far stranger, this emphatic and curious utterance, "ooh," suggests a voyeurs delight at the possibility of an Olive Garden, or, more realistically, an uncensored interjection at the novel (for this hostess, it is either endearing or peculiar that someone would have a date at the Olive Garden). After this baffling "ooh"--and before the abrupt interruption of the child's call to "mom," which saves us from some quickly boiling water--you may notice the corners of the hostess's mouth droop, ever so slightly. What's the significance? Well, when we cut back to her, following the relief of clearing up the "date" conundrum, there can be no mistaking it: she is relieved (hand over heart) to see that this "date" was merely this woman's child. So, why the long face chum? Here's a thought: was this hostess possibly worried that this woman's date would, gasp, be in some way mentally challenged--incapable, say, of even tying his own shoelaces? What other explanation can there be for being shocked at the notion that this woman is dating someone who cannot tie their own shoes? Now, that saving calling ("mom!") doesn't seem so innocuous; particularly when you consider the hostess may even have allowed herself to ponder that this charming female customer is a lecherous pedophile (a leering, female Humbert Humbert)? And if this woman happens to find enduring love in the mentally challenged, or even in some female variation of NAMBLA, who cares? While the latter may be an ethical and legal issue, the former is certainly well within this woman's rights. Yet, given the hostess's reaction, which we can suggest stands in for Olive Garden (nothing is accidental in advertising), apparently this chain of medium-priced Italian-American cares who you date (so long as it's within the hallowed walls of their charmingly "dilapidated" Italian "farmhouse" eating establishments). Additionally, in case just a mother and son having a "date night" could further chaff some viewers (or allow more creative imaginations to wander and incite libel [cough]), we notice the careful placement of, what we assume, is the father (whose eyes the mother stares into, lovingly, while confessing, "I love date night"). Isn't it sweet?

And that's the Olive Garden rant! But, because the internet of 2010 is a strange and beautiful place (as I'm truly finding out by actually scouring through this YouTube thing), here is a counter-response to the Olive Garden's carefully doctored version of reality that had me laughing:


Anonymous said...

I know I said I wasn't going to leave a comment, however I just wouldn't feel complete unless I played a little Devil's Advocate. I find your blog entry most entertaining, especially because I am aware of your long standing hatred of Olive Garden commercials. That being said, I wonder if its possible we are misinterpreting a few things.
The hostess saying "ohh" may also just be a moment that one woman is showing another woman delight and shared excitement in her having a date, no? After all, the woman seemed genuinely happy, and isn't it acceptable for a hostess and fellow female to be happy for her as well? And regarding the fraction of a angle the womans smile supposedly takes at hearing the description of untied shoes.. is that anything more than the hostess trying to recall if she had recently seated someone with untied shoes? And is it really a choice/right of a woman to date a mentally challenged individual, if that individual may be taken advantage of due to limitations/inabilities to make choices based on potential consequences?
Lastly, I know that you compare the cost of Olive Garden with the comparable-tasting meals available at Whole Foods and Trader Joes. This however does not take into account the salad, breadsticks, and cost of eating at a dine-in restaurant with fairly comfortable interiors and asthetics. Clearly buying food from a grocery store will be more affordable than eating out because the cost of waitstaff, dishes, utilities, etc gets delivered to the consumer. It would be much more fair to compare similar quality food, setting, and service as a whole.

I hope this comment does not suggest that I didn't love your blog entry. I really did. I dont understand some of the more technical/critical aspects, but I am very curious to see your responses to my comments.


Mike Petitti said...


Good stuff. I always appreciate some Devil's Advocacy, but in this case (I think) I can defend myself on most points. First, the reason I read these Olive Garden commercials as such is because they too often or frequently are given a pass by us (myself certainly included). We can easily "defend" ads, or dismiss it ("whatever, it's just a silly ad"), but that equates (often against our better wishes) to towing the company line--I personally receive no money or benefits from defending the Olive Garden (or any of the other countless, faceless corporations). Not to sound harsh, but there's no need to defend something like the Olive Garden or even NBC (with the whole Conan/Leno debacle) because they are hardly scrappy little start-ups.

Like I said, there are no accidents in ads, so "ohh," instead of "ahh," suggests more than mere delight or excitement. Being happy for someone is perfectly acceptable behavior, but in a 30 second clip there are better ways to show it (if you decide to show it at all).
As for the hostess's angularity of her mouth: her relief and hand over her heart following the clarification of the "date" situation makes it clear that it's not an issue of recall--she is genuinely pleased to see her worst fears were purely speculative.

I do concede that I hadn't fully considered the potential problematics of dating a mentally challenged individually--issues of power, coercion, etc.

As for the Whole Foods to Olive Garden connection, you're right, but don't the salad and breadsticks cost too? It is true that there a comparable Italian eatery would be a good comparison, but Olive Garden has a pretty tight lock on competition of the chain-sort. There is the cheaper, fast food-y Fazoli's...but again you don't get the ambiance factor. I fully agree that some people just enjoy eating out and some at chain restaurants (myself included) where the comfort of the banal is almost soothing. Yet, of course, I'm always going to push for people to cook for themselves or eat at non-chain options because that is my sensibility.

Thanks for the comments!

Anonymous said...

I know this is suppose to be analytical but I think your deep seated feelings about this establishment causes you to be overly critical. I do not disagree that every phrase and gesture in the commercial has a purpose but enough tilting at this windmill. Although I have to note that my social work with the special needs population(you know the word I am thinking of)has me disturbed with the commercial's suggestion.