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Instantly infamous Applebee’s spot shows how traditional ads can backfire

By Justin Cremer on September 21, 2021

An advertisement that audiences will remember is usually considered a success. But sometimes an advertisement is remembered for all the wrong reasons.

A recent TV commercial from Applebee’s may go down as one of the most jarring and poorly-timed ads in modern history.  

In case you haven’t seen the viral clip, American viewers watching Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on CNN were seeing a slow camera pan over the rooftops of Kyiv as air raid sirens blared. When the pan stopped, the Kyiv scene was relegated to the lower left-hand corner as the twangy opening chords of the country song “Chicken Fried” replaced the sirens and images of sauce-smothered boneless chicken wings and beer took over the bulk of the screen. The split-screen ad was presented right next to the all-caps headline ‘RUSSIA INVADES UKRAINE’. 


The juxtaposition of advertising $1 chicken wings next to the invasion of a sovereign country went immediately viral as social media users shared their outrage. A common refrain was that Applebee’s was “sponsoring” the war. 

In reality, much of the criticism was misguided. The casual restaurant chain had no direct control over the timing of the commercial’s airing. In a statement, an Applebee’s spokesperson said the incident caused a suspension of its ad buy on CNN. 

“When we were made aware that our ad was placed in this manner, we immediately reached out to CNN to pause our advertising on their network,” Applebee’s said in the statement. “It never should have aired, and we are disappointed in the actions of the network.”

The Applebee’s ad wasn’t the only one that had the misfortune of clashing so vividly with images of war. CNN also ran a split-screen ad for Sandals Resorts showing a young couple rolling in the sand as Bob Marley sings “Don’t worry ‘bout a thing, cause every little thing gonna be alright” from his classic song “Three Little Birds”. 

WarnerMedia, which owns CNN, told AdWeek that its so-called "squeezeback" advertisements, which consume most of the screen while regular programming continues around it, will no longer be used while covering the Ukraine invasion. 

Although these cases were both unusual and extreme, they serve as vivid reminders of just how intrusive traditional advertising can be. Whether consumers are watching news, reading an article or scrolling through social media, nothing can irritate them quicker than something that completely takes them out of what they’re doing. 

This, of course, has long been one of the many arguments in favour of native advertising. In sharp contrast to traditional methods that disrupt a media consumer’s experience, native advertising – when done right – fits seamlessly within its surrounding content

To be clear, we are in no way suggesting that native advertising can or should help brands capitalize on the Ukraine invasion or any catastrophic world event for that matter. But the CNN Applebee’s trainwreck is now a textbook example of how traditional advertising can backfire. 

As Rebecca Lieb, co-founder and analyst at Kaleido Insights, recently told us: “Traditional advertising is simply too blunt an instrument.” 

In the case of the Applebee’s ad, boy was it ever.

This may be too obvious to even require stating, but advertising should not piss off customers. CNN viewers, and internet users the world over, were appalled by an upbeat appeal to eat cheap chicken wings and drink cold beers sharing the screen with an armed conflict that could potentially lead to World War III. Neither Applebee’s – nor the Zac Brown Band, whose song was used in the ad – intended for their messaging to be presented this way but, fairly or not, the damage has been done. 

The ad will likely be remembered. But it will go down as an example of what not to do.