Someone posted this receipt (see the full version below) to Reddit last night, writing "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." Surprise, everything was comped. Here's the thing, though: Tanek42, the user who posted it, had only started his account seven months back, and this is the first and only post he ever submitted. So naturally, people thought it was a fake.
In fact, someone claiming to be an advertising journalist started a new thread claiming that not only is this specific post a fake, this kind of thing is pretty common in the marketing industry. Writes user iworkinadvertising (this has since been removed from Reddit by mods, screengrabbed for posterity):
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.
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. Data analysis is done on what is the optimum time to post these things to get most upvotes from unsuspecting users. I don't know how much of the commenting is astroturfing, but enough to piss me off.
I have been in conferences where marketing directors at companies like Netflix and major ad agencies discuss their strategies to use platforms like Reddit to spread their corporate message, and it frankly pisses me off and I'm sick of it. It's dishonest and offensive.
Let me stress that I am not an advertiser--I am a journalist covering advertising. Big difference! It does mean, however, that I know a lot of people in a lot of agencies who work on these kinds of campaigns.
There are many reasons as to why people might post fake receipts to the internet or submit them to to sites like Reddit: fake internet points (karma) or just the self-satisfaction of duping thousands if not millions of people. But in this specific case, the accusation is that it's the PR machine employed by a massive corporation, Darden Restaurants, Inc., the parent of the Olive Garden, that planted this story. There's no denying that if this story were to be proved true, it would provide massive good will, similar to an earlier story today of the autistic girl at Chili's.
This post started picking up traction, until it started to seem like maybe the Olive Garden thing actually happened. First of all, Tanek42 fiercely defended his/her story, linking to an article about the fire and writing:
"Holy cow! I went to bed last night and was not really expecting this big of a response. There's a lot of hatred out there, I can't even believe some of the messages I received...At Olive Garden, we were talking to my brother about the fire when the manager stopped by. He asked how everything was and my daughter blurted out "Grandpa's house burned down". He asked what she just said, and she repeated herself. He asked a couple of details like where it happened, when, and if my family had somewhere to stay. I did not expect the bill to get paid, but it was very nice of them!"
If this were a marketing gimmick, Olive Garden at the very least would be flirting with a major PR disaster when the actual victims of the fire found out about this. There's no way they'd be stupid enough to tempt that fate. Furthermore, Consumerist caught up with Grey Worldwide, Olive Garden's marketing firm: "Grey had absolutely nothing to do with post concerning Olive Garden. It would be against our code of conduct."
That's not to say an individual franchisee couldn't have posted the receipt to Reddit posing as the original diner, but at this point it certainly seems like the comped meal itself actually happened. (Industrious Redditors have dug up photo galleries of the fire, an original Facebook posting about the Olive Garden meal, that kind of thing.) However, these kinds of receipts pop up all the time: discounts for well-behaved kids, "100% Shitshow" comps, discounts for "best butt" (that one is definitely a marketing gimmick). Who's to say any of these are real? Who's to say anything is real? Ready those pitchforks in the comments below.