Are political statements tarnishing the restaurant industry’s reputation?

Nov. 15, 2012 | by Alicia Kelso

This election year seemed particularly divisive, don't you think? Perhaps it's because of the record amount of money that was spent on incessant advertising, or the constant interaction afforded to us by social media.

About a week ahead of Election Day, one network was airing "It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown." I paused for a moment to soak in some nostalgia and, during that brief moment, Charlie Brown said, "There are three things I have learned never to discuss with people: religion, politics and the Great Pumpkin."

If only we were all so wise.

Personally I never got to the point of "unfriending" someone because of their incompatible beliefs this election season, but I know of many who did. Sadly, there continues to be discordance – even without the acerbic ads – and some of this aftermath is trickling beyond personal and social relationships and into the public forum.

As these political disagreements linger, particularly over the Affordable Care Act, the restaurant industry has become public enemy No. 1. CEOs and franchisees – from Papa John's to Jimmy John's, and Olive Garden and Red Lobster to Denny's – have been outspoken about the negative effects the health care law could have on their bottom lines.

Papa John's CEO/founder John Schnatter's estimation that the ACA, or Obamacare, will result in a price increase of 10 to 14 cents per pizza set off a firestorm over the summer. He reiterated those potential consequences after President Obama's re-election this month. Now, in addition to the brand's entire social dialogue focusing on this one policy issue, there is also a Boycott Papa John's Facebook page and a Papa John's Appreciation Day Facebook event.

Similar issues have come up at Darden Restaurants' Olive Garden and Red Lobster, and at Applebee's, whose president Mike Archer had to release a statement last week assuring customers that the chain will comply fully with the law after a franchisee threatened to cut jobs because of it.

The statement reads in part: "Recent public comments by one Applebee's franchisee about the possible implications of the ACA on jobs within his individual company were not the views or opinions of either Applebee's or other franchisees, although we respect his right to speak freely as an American."

Denny's page is also full of political discourse, ever since franchisee John Metz promised a 5 percent "Obamacare surcharge" on customers' bills to offset his estimation of increased costs from the mandate. He also plans on reducing employee hours to get around some of those costs, according to the Huffington Post.

How are these politically charged statements resonating with customers? Comb through these brands' social media channels and it seems that, for the most part, they're not happy. This isn't surprising considering that support for an Obamacare repeal is currently at an all-time low, according to the Washington Post. Even if they do support a repeal, however, many customers simply don't want to mix politics and food.

More concerning for the brands, however, is that their social narrative is not about the new limited-time pizza or the latest promotion with a music superstar. It's about who is boycotting or supporting them. For example, Denny's has a Hobbit-themed menu right now! How cool is that? Unfortunately, all anyone is talking about on the Denny's Facebook page is the 5-percent Obamacare surcharge.

Papa John's is a huge NFL sponsor and also has a current promotion with Taylor Swift, yet the intense pre-Nov. 6 political arguments have carried over onto that brand's Facebook page and fans aren't talking about much else. Worse, a competitor – Papa Murphy's – is taking direct jabs in response to the drama, posting: "An important word from this Papa ... Papa Murphy's Pizza provides a fun, dynamic and rewarding place to work because we value our employees and their basic needs, including the need for affordable health care."

Clearly business owners are affected by policy, particularly one as new and comprehensive as the ACA. They also are fortunate enough to have First Amendment protection. But when the narrative shifts from their food, service and brand differentiation to just politics it's a no-win situation for everyone – business owners who risk alienating fans and their customers who could have an irreparably damaged impression of a once-favorite brand.

Perhaps, like religion and the Great Pumpkin, it's better to just avoid this public conversation altogether.

Topics: Insurance / Risk Management , Marketing / Branding / Promotion , Operations Management , Trends / Statistics

Alicia Kelso / Alicia has been a professional journalist for 15 years. Her work with, and has been featured in publications around the world, including NPR, Good Morning America, Voice of Russia radio, and Franchise Asia magazine.
View Alicia Kelso's profile on LinkedIn

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