Last night a heart-warming story appeared on Reddit, purportedly about an unnamed manager for Olive Garden providing a free meal to a family after their young daughter mentioned that her grandparents' house recently burned down. Accompanying the post was a picture of an Olive Garden receipt, showing that the manager had comped each item of the meal. Within hours the post received 8,744 up-votes and over 1,900 comments, reaching the front page of the mega-popular discussion forum.
Update: a representative of Olive Garden tells The Atlantic Wire that the receipt was genuine and not planted by a marketing firm:
The receipt is real and was posted by the guests, not by anyone at Olive Garden or Darden. We are always looking for ways to surprise and delight our guests, and this was one of the ways the Olive Garden team in Vernon Hills, Ill., did that last weekend.
Here’s another recent example from the Olive Garden in Lubbock, Texas, involving a soldier who was being deployed that was picked up organically by local media: Lubbock Restaurant in the Middle of Social Media Frenzy for Good Deed.
And on Wednesday afternoon, an employee at the Vernon Hills, Illinois, Olive Garden confirmed that the manager at the restaurant comped a meal for the family described in the Reddit post. "It's a fact," the employee, Patty Weaver, said.
This morning, a much different story appeared on Reddit's home page. Written by an anonymous advertising journalist, the post explains that the Olive Garden story was concocted by Olive Garden's ad agency in order to cast the company in a positive light among the Reddit community (and the bloggers who follow them). "Honestly, I'm sick and tired of this shit on Reddit and the fact that users are getting defrauded by cheap advertisers looking to lift their engagement with some free advertising," the poster, "iworkinadvertising," wrote.
Submitted to Reddit's "Ask Me Anything" subreddit, the poster called out Grey Group, the international advertising agency, where Olive Garden holds an account, for supposedly devising the astroturfed advertising campaign. "What happens is these agencies encourage employees to have social media accounts that they regularly use, and every once in a while they'll be called on to post something and/or upvote certain posts," he said.
But a representative for Grey Group, the Italian-themed casual dining restaurant's ad agency, said it had nothing to do with the the story. "Grey had absolutely nothing to do with the post regarding Olive Garden," chief communications officer Owen Dougherty told The Atlantic Wire. "It would be against our social code of conduct." (Dougherty did not respond to a request to see this code of conduct.)
Certain users on Reddit were skeptical of Grey's involvement, too. Referring to the "original poster," one wrote, "OP ... keeps spouting Grey, Grey, Grey because that's all you can find on Google. They make commercials and not much else."
Highlighting corporations' attempts to exploit the dynamics of social media (whether failed or successful) is part of Reddit's culture: the site hosts a well-known subreddit, r/hailcorporate, where Redditors point out and discuss posts they believe were planted not by ad agencies.