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Applebee’s Microwaving Their Steaks?: A Lesson on Repeating the Negative

I recently learned that Applebee’s has been accused of microwaving all the food they serve, and I learned this from a multi-million-dollar TV commercial Applebee’s produced themselves. The spot, titled Microwave, shows the juicy USDA Choice sirloin cut in-house by a well-trained hand. My mouth is watering. As you see and hear about the “American Oak smoke” infusing your steak with subtle, smoky, juiciness, I’m thinking about where the nearest Applebee’s is and grabbing my purse.

And then, the screen shows a grill and the voiceover says, “does this look like a microwave to you? Only at Applebee’s.”

Made in a microwave? I immediately drop my purse, sink back into the couch, and start Googling “Does Applebee’s make all of their food in a microwave?” I had never heard that before, but now, it’s all I can think about—which is the opposite effect that Applebee’s was intending.

PR flacks call that grave messaging error “repeating the negative.” The theory is that by repeating the negative idea or false message, you are doing two things: 1) further cementing the negative idea through its repetition, and 2) potentially sharing negative information about your product or brand with those who previously had had a positive, neutral, or no opinion whatsoever about it.

By making an attempt at addressing a rumor using self-deprecating humor, Applebee’s ended up diverting the online conversation to one about microwaves.

The below graph shows the number of mentions online with the terms “Applebee’s” and “microwave” over the last month. As you can see, there was virtually no chatter about this topic until the commercial was released.

What should Applebee’s have done to combat the microwave message? Focus on the positive. Run the entire spot as is, without the microwave mention. The audience who already has a negative impression will understand what the commercial is getting at, and the uninformed will only be exposed to the positive message.

Some of the most famous quotes in history are examples of committing this grave PR blunder. Richard Nixon told us that “I am not a crook,” which made many Americans question whether he was or not. Bill Clinton once told us he, “did not have sexual relations with that woman.” If Applebee’s doesn’t learn this lesson, they might consider themselves officially “cooked.”

Madison Case is a Director at LEVICK and a contributing author to Tomorrow.

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