Olive Garden dumps Letterman; Update: Olive Garden denies; Update: E-mail shows OG, Hellmans backing away from Letterman

A more sincere apology to Sarah Palin and her daughters hasn’t helped David Letterman and CBS avoid a sponsor exodus, and neither has Palin’s acceptance of his second attempt at a walk-back.  Politico reports that Olive Garden is now telling customers that they will pull the ads they bought for the rest of the year after a deluge of complaints hit their offices:

Following a week of back and forth between CBS late night comic David Letterman and Sarah Palin over a crude joke he told about the Alaska Republican governor’s daughter, the Olive Garden restaurant says it is cancelling all of its scheduled ads on Letterman’s “Late Show” for the rest of the year.

In an email to a Letterman critic obtained by POLITICO, a spokeswoman for the Italian restaurant chain wrote that “there will be no more Olive Garden ads scheduled for ‘The Late Show’ with David Letterman in this year’s broadcast schedule,” citing the talk show host’s “inappropriate comments.”

“We apologize that Mr. Letterman’s mistake, which was not consistent with our standards and values, left you with a bad impression of Olive Garden,” wrote Sherri Bruen, the company’s guest relations manager.

According to John Ziegler, who attended (but contrary to reports did not organize) protests at Letterman’s studio earlier this week, this won’t be the last sponsor to abandon CBS’ “Late Night”.  Hellman’s Mayonnaise will also pull its ads for the same reason, Ziegler told me earlier this afternoon.  More may follow suit, even after a ratings boost for Letterman just as his bete noir, Jay Leno, finally retired from late-night television.

Should the boycotts continue?  Palin accepted the apology, after all, and seems to want to move forward.  Letterman, though, has used Palin as a favorite punching bag, especially when he invites Katie Couric to join him on his show.  Her followers have a particular animus for both CBS stars and the network itself after last year’s treatment of Palin, which Ziegler documented in Media Malpractice, available at his site.

Update: Olive Garden denies that they’ve pulled any ads, but refuses to say whether they’ll do any more buys for Letterman this year:

The Olive Garden restaurant chain may not have been happy with David Letterman’s jokes about Gov. Sarah Palin and her family, but no order was issued to pull commercials from Mr. Letterman’s show, a spokesman for the company said Thursday.

Rich Jeffers, the spokesman, said Olive Garden was attempting to counter what he called “erroneous information out there,” which he said came from the website Politico. The site posted a report by Andy Barr on Thursday saying that the restaurant was “cancelling all its scheduled ads” on Mr. Letterman’s show for the rest of the year.

Mr. Jeffers said in a telephone interview that no such cancellation decision had been made and that the company’s schedule of commercials in the show had simply expired “earlier this month.” …

Asked if Olive Garden would buy new commercials in the Letterman show, Mr. Jeffers said, “There has been no decision along those lines yet.”

Still haven’t heard an announcement about Hellmans yet, either.

Update II: I got the e-mails in question from Olive Garden and Unilever, the parent company of Hellmans/Best Foods, through John. The Olive Garden e-mail strongly suggests that the company had decided not to buy any more advertising. First, Olive Garden’s reponse:

Dear [customer]:

Thank you for expressing your concerns about Olive Garden and allowing us an opportunity to respond.

We understand your concern about Mr. Letterman’s inappropriate comments. Olive Garden screens network television programs whenever possible. Telecasts, such as The Late Show with David Letterman, are taped on a daily basis, preventing advertisers from reviewing the content prior to airing. We apologize that Mr. Letterman’s mistake, which was not consistent with our standards and values, left you with a bad impression of Olive Garden. There will be no more Olive Garden ads scheduled for The Late Show with David Letterman in this year’s broadcast schedule.

We have not yet finalized next year’s advertising plan but will consider our valued guests’ opinions when doing so.

Again, thank you for contacting us with your comments, and we hope you will continue to think of Olive Garden as a place to visit with your family and friends.

That actually gibes with both Politico and Olive Garden. It doesn’t claim that the restaurant will pull its ads because it acknowledges that there are no ads to pull — but then the e-mail claims it will not buy advertising on Letterman through the rest of the year, and then kind of retreats into the “no decision will be made” mode.

Next, Unilever, which is more explicit:


Thank you for contacting us regarding your disappointment with the program content which contained a commercial for a Unilever product. We never wish to offend anyone and your opinions are appreciated regarding this subject matter. Advertising for Hellmann’s or media buys are done months in advance and unfortunately we can’t foresee issues in the media before they come up. We appreciate the feedback from our consumers and we’ve decided to pull our online ads from the Letterman show from our advertising schedule moving forward.

We hope that this information has given you a better understanding of our advertising practices. Thank you again for taking the time to share your views with us. You can be assured that your comments will be considered as we continue to challenge our perceptions about what is appropriate for us in today’s environment.

Kind regards,

Your friends at Hellmann’s/Best Foods

I have a call into Unilever for a response, but that looks like an explicit statement of withdrawal.

Update III: One commenter notes that Hellmans/Unilever is only threatening to pull their online ads. Perhaps that’s all they bought in the first place, or they may just be hedging their bets. The online ad revenue for CBS and Letterman will not be terribly substantial, though.

What do you think? Cast your vote in the poll:

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