That’s not how you throw a chair, Applebee’s.

My wife was actually at the IU game where Coach “Anger Issues” Knight threw that infamous chair. It was a childish thing to do, but he was The General and the tolerance in the mid-80s was way, way, way more than zero, so he got by with it.

I guess it’s okay to joke about now, since he’s a harmless senior citizen.

Whatever. He’s not the first person to misbehave in the state of Indiana and turn it into something to talk about for money.

What I will say is this: when a brand starts borrowing old jokes from randomly placed mini-celebrities to sell its $20 Bourbon Street whatever-they-saids, I think they have abandoned any hope of figuring out what makes them different from everybody else. We might enjoy visiting with the celebs and mini-celebs, but whatever implied endorsement they make is pretty irrelevant, and in the end all it does it make you say, “Did you see Knight in that ad? It was for a restaurant or something.”

I think Applebee’s current agency—a talented bunch of people, by reputation—started out trying to position them with at least a clear point of view.

But those days are gone. Apparently.

So many of these big chains struggle to come up with a clear strategy, an “own-able” voice, and a promise that separates them in some way from the next restaurant on the strip by the mall.

So they do a temporary fix. They bask mildly in some other entity’s glow. In the old days we called this “borrowed interest.”

By the way, friend of the blog Eric pointed out that this ad also borrows interest (noticeable if you’re one of the 15 million who viewed this stupid thing) of the following meme bait.

Advice? Do not invest any time in the preceding YouTube video. I’d sooner have you put on the 10-hour loop of Nyan cat. It’s way more enjoyable. (Fun note: I went to get the link for Nyan cat and there was a :15-second ad for Olive Garden right before the ten endless hours begins. Who’s borrowing whose interest, now?)



  1. this reminds me of George’s line from Seinfeld when they were pitching “a show about nothing”. when asked by the NBC exec why someone would watch a show about nothing, George says, “because it’s on TV”. why do people eat at Applebee’s? because there’s one on almost every (not every, because some other interchangeable establishment is on the rest) strip by the mall, and people need to eat.

    your insight and wit consistently impress me (enough that i followed you here from McSweeney’s) but i have to say i’m confused about your level of expectations for a place like Applebee’s. from my perspective the only thing possibly unique or original about Applebee’s concept is the notion that a publicly traded, multi-national corporation could pass itself off as “a neighborhood bar and grill”. since there isn’t much room for nuance in a comment thread, here’s a disclaimer. please don’t mistake my tone for vitriol or personal criticism… i am just genuinely confused about your surprise and disappointment. keep up the good work, and i’ll happily keep reading.

    1. 1. Thank you for the McSweeney’s linkage. In some ways, I’ve been a little self-conscious about being “a consistent voice” between the personal Don Quixote impossibility I’m writing about over there, and a practical and opinionated blog about restaurant marketing. Until now, I wasn’t sure there was anybody who really read both, but now I’m extra self-conscious. Which is good, of course. Keeps a person honest.

      2. Your Seinfeld reference is dead on. A hungry person near an Applebee’s chooses Applebee’s because it’s convenient (or the hungry person finds himself/herself with a kid). You don’t choose A’s because you have a love of their particular take on chicken fingers.

      3. But here’s the thing: Applebee’s chose to work with the advertising agency Crispin Porter + Bogusky. That’s the agency who brought the world that crazy Burger King “King” campaign and all the edgy little sub-campaigns within it (including the excellent Whopper Freakout, and some brilliant in-store materials based off the old “Have It Your Way” concept). For awhile there, it seemed like BK knew who they were, and who they wanted to talk to, and how people should think of them. CP+B also made Domino’s go on TV and confess in a purging public spectacle that they realize everybody hates their pizza. So I would expect a restaurant that chooses CP+B to be ready for some challenging discussions that lead to clarity, some effective attempts at differentiation, and some kind of self-examination that leads to self-knowledge and a change of behavior (or, at least, a single-minded expression of who they are and how a viewer should think of them). And I think forces within Applebee’s weren’t ready for whatever CP+B suggested they do, and they ended up with this muddly stuff that’s pretty nicely done (I’m impressed and amused by Knight’s subtle read of the line, “That’s not how you throw a chair” as he sips his drink), but interchangeable with ads for Chili’s and O’Charley’s and Ruby Tuesday’s, etc. Which just unfortunately confirms what I already thought of them.

      4. I am maybe a little too much of an optimist sometimes, but I feel like any business that’s worth saving, or that somehow manages to make money, ought to be able to say something about how I should think of it that is “ownable” and simple and respects my intelligence. Taco Bell does it. Sonic does it. Jack in the Box does it. Chipotle and Chic-fil-A and (though I don’t especially like the work) Hardee’s/Carl’s Jr. do it. Arby’s and Red Lobster are kind of trying. Admittedly, those are mostly fast food brands, but many of them could be as interchangeable as the midscale restaurants who keep blurring the lines between themselves. There are lots of potentially boring brands who’ve figured something out about themselves to talk about, and become interesting. I bet if Applebee’s C-suite was willing to think it through, they’d be able to commit to an interesting idea about themselves, and even end up changing your mind. But I also bet there’s too many people who don’t understand communication preventing it from happening.

      5. I had no idea I was going to type so much when I hit “reply.” Thanks for the comment.

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