Last Sunday, a man went out to eat at Olive Garden with his brother, wife, and 3-year-old daughter, according to his post on the anonymous online forum Reddit. The Reddit user said that the restaurant manager came over to ask how everything was, and the child informed him that her grandpa's house had just burned down. When they received the bill for their meal, the total was listed as "0.00." Tanek42, but confirmed his real identity to AOL Jobs. Seth McClure, 30, is a third-year law student at Northern Illinois University College of Law, with a stay-at-home wife, and two kids. His parents really had been through a house fire a couple weeks before, he said, destroying the majority of their home, including his own childhood bedroom.
McClure decided to upload a photo of the receipt in the early hours of Wednesday morning because, he said: "You don't see a lot of nice stuff coming on the news very often, and I thought it was a nice thing that Olive Garden did."
When McClure woke up Wednesday morning, he said, his Reddit inbox was filled with messages, some telling him that "he should get cancer," and others calling him a "corporate shill." His receipt had gone viral; as of Wednesday afternoon it had received almost 900,000 views and over 1,600 comments, many roundly praising Olive Garden for a random act of kindness, but others accusing McClure of being the agent in a PR stunt.
A Reddit user going by the name iworkinadvertising, who claims to be a journalist covering advertising, said ad agencies will encourage employees to have active social media accounts, and then on occasion will call on those employees to post a positive story related to one of their clients. Tanek42 was just a fraud, he said, and his receipt "free advertising."
Skeptics also pointed out that the receipt in the photograph is perfectly framed by the Olive Garden logo, that all information identifying the specific Olive Garden restaurant is conveniently obscured, and that the user who posted the image became active on Reddit less than a month ago, and hasn't responded to any of the controversy. In other words, they smell a rat. (Since then, McClure has posted dozens of replies to commenters.)
Olive Garden and its primary ad agency, Grey Worldwide, were quickly inundated with calls. Olive Garden spokeswoman Tara Gray told AOL Jobs via email that the receipt is "real and posted by the guests," and came from an Olive Garden in Vernon Hills, Ill. A hostess who answered the phone at the restaurant also said that the receipt was real, and that there was a waitress on staff with the first name Susan and the last initial F, as seen on the receipt.
The head of corporate communications for Grey Worldwide, also flatly denied any foul play. "It's completely against our corporate code of conduct," said Owen Dougherty. "You don't plant things that aren't true."
McClure isn't so surprised that his post attracted critics. "I think it's the Internet, right. It goes at light speed," he said. "You've got people on both sides, and there are always skeptics. In the end, you just hope the truth comes out."
But there have been cases of companies and individuals using social media to promote themselves in sometimes sneaky ways. Reddit, which prides itself on honesty and authenticity, is particularly hostile to such attempts. Famously (in the Reddit world), Woody Harrelson hopped on the site last year and invited users to ask him questions about "anything." But when the exchange came off like a promotional interview for his new movie, fans were whipped into a rage.
Reddit will also ban users who appear to only post content that they created, and last year prohibited all links from The Atlantic and Businessweek after it determined that links from those news sources were appearing so often that they qualified as spam.
The review site Yelp is another platform that has grappled with the issue of phony PR. Yelp now outs companies for paying for positive reviews, and filters out what it deems to be fraudulent comments (sometimes to the frustration of companies who claim that the reviews are genuine). Some stores and restaurants have paid people between $50 and $100 to write some flattering copy, reported ABC News.
With all of this online abuse, it seems the public has become largely cynical of anything that resembles positive PR. "I guess it was just unbelievable that a company would actually do something that was actually nice," said McClure.
But at least in this case Tanek42 is not a sneaky spambot of casual Italian dining, but truly a scholarship law student with two kids, a mortgage, and parent's whose house just burned down -- and who happened to have a heart-warming experience at Olive Garden. The best kind of free advertising there is.
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