With sponsored stories and deceptive ads becoming the new normal on social media and the Web, consumers are increasingly skeptical of brand content. Taking advantage of the ever-expanding array of digital and social platforms, brands are undoubtedly passing off their own, carefully crafted content as user-generated buzz far more than they’d like to admit. So, when the warm and fuzzy tale of a comped Olive Garden receipt hit Reddit, it wasn’t a huge shocker that people pounced on its questionable authenticity – however, the unique virality it gained was. Although the receipt is checked and verified to the best of the media’s ability, consumers’ rapid (and rabid) response begs the question – how do brands get back in the public’s good graces?

On March 27, Redditor Tanek42 posted the following photo:


His post read, “My brother, wife, 3-year-old daughter and I went to Olive Garden after a recent house fire at my parents. When the manager asked how everything was my daughter said ‘Grandpa’s house burned down.’ Here’s how we received the check.” Nice, right? However, soon after, Reddit exploded – fellow Redditors, some who claimed to be ad industry professionals, called foul. The logo was too “perfectly framed” to be true. Tanek42 was way too new to Reddit. “That Olive Garden receipt is fake,” said Redditor Iworkinadvertising. “It’s free advertising. I know because I work in advertising and have spoken to people who plan these campaigns.” (With all due respect to Iworkinadvertising, if this was indeed a plant, it probably cost something. If it wasn’t? That would be free advertising).

That’s when Reddit general manager Erik Martin stepped in. “’I know for a fact that this is fake because I’ve seen something similar’ is not proof,” he said. “I just find it hard to believe that a brand like Olive Garden can fabricate a fake receipt… the backlash potential if they get caught is too high.” Tanek42 also spoke with some media outlets to back up his story. From what we can tell, he’s just Seth McClure – a 30-year-old Northern Illinois University law student with a wife, two kids, and parents who lost their longtime home – and he wanted to share something nice that happened to him.

Although Reddit has been a platform for planted content from brands as big as Costco, Taco Bell, and Volvo in the past, we’d like to believe this particular story was legit. To be fair, if you had a touching experience at a national restaurant, you would probably make sure their logo made it into any photo you took, too. But fact or fake, we think that this story should make brands pay attention. With the digital masses better able to sniff out B.S. than ever before, it’s time to step away from the self-promoting plants. That’s not to say that testimonials can’t work their way into your overall strategy – they can, and they should. However, rather than pushing budget into hijacking Facebook likes or pasting website copy into a thinly-veiled “Today I Learned” to create content, funnel them into connecting with fans, driving engagement, and building creative campaigns that build buzz for the right reasons.


Gordon, Claire. “Olive Garden Receipt on Reddit Tells Heartwarming and Viral Tale.” jobs.aol.com. N.p., 27 Mar. 2013. Web. 28 Mar. 2013. <http://jobs.aol.com/articles/2013/03/27/olive-garden-receipt-family-free-meal/>.

Holiday, Ryan. “Hail Corporate: The Increasingly Insufferable Fakery of Brands on Reddit.” betabeat.com. N.p., 21 Feb. 2013. Web. 28 Mar. 2013. <http://betabeat.com/2013/02/hail-corporate-the-increasingly-insufferable-fakery-of-brands-on-reddit/>.

Wasserman, Todd. “Olive Garden Receipt Prompts Brandjacking Debate on Reddit.” mashable.com. N.p., 27 Mar. 2013. Web. 28 Mar. 2013. <http://mashable.com/2013/03/27/olive-garden-receipt-reddit/>.