As the world’s eyes were trained yesterday on the events unfolding in Ukraine, Americans turned to cable news channels such as CNN to stay updated on the bombing over the capital city of Kyiv. Little did viewers know that they were about to experience what it sounds like when the cacophony of war is punctuated by the chorus of “Chicken Fried” by the Zac Brown Band, part of a disastrously ill-timed commercial spot for Applebee’s.
The Applebee’s commercial aired during a moment in CNN’s coverage when a news camera was panning over the rooftops of Kyiv, air raid sirens blaring. Many Twitter users clocked the oddity of the moment and posted it for posterity, with captions like “We’re living in an episode of South Park” and “Someone didn’t pause their ad spend fast enough” and “Russia Invades Ukraine brought to you by Applebees!”
This would have been embarrassing no matter which chain restaurant was running ads against war coverage, but Applebee’s, with its vaguely nationalistic vibe and American cowboy aesthetic, stood in particularly sharp contrast to the grim situation in Eastern Europe. Applebee’s is even a caricature among its key demographic. Who doesn’t know the tongue-in-cheek lyrics to Walker Hayes’ hit song “Fancy Like”? (A quick primer: “We fancy like Applebee’s on a date night/ Got that Bourbon Street steak with the Oreo shake/Get some whipped cream on the top too/ Two straws, one check, girl, I got you...”)
Part of what made the Applebee’s ad such bad form was that it didn’t just interrupt or cut away from CNN’s Kyiv coverage—it was slapped right beside it, country music supplanting air raid sirens, fried chicken eclipsing shots of a city under attack. This is called split-screen advertising, and it has sucked long before this.
Sports broadcasts pioneered split-screen advertising, which has been the norm on stations like the Golf Channel for nearly a decade. And the rationale for these ads certainly makes sense from the networks’ and clients’ point of view. As ad agency BFW describes it:
Universally, good advertising plays off the strengths of its medium. If there’s one strength of split-screen TV commercials, it’s that the audience’s guard is down. Their content is still running. They’re in an emotional state that is different than when they would encounter an ad during a commercial break. TV advertisers have an opportunity to piggyback on this emotional state.
On Thursday, you could certainly have described the American audience as one with its guard down, in an emotional state. But even if we’re thinking in the craven terms of modern marketing, an effective split-screen ad capitalizes on that emotional state with a somehow complementary product or call to action. And of course the Applebee’s ad didn’t do that, because Applebee’s couldn’t have predicted its ads would air during a world war. So viewers brimming with uncertainty about the state of the world simply didn’t know what to do with a cowboy shaking his ass on camera. It was a flop by every measure.
“We are deeply concerned about the situation in Ukraine,”an Applebee’s spokesperson told MarketWatch via email. “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. It never should have aired, and we are disappointed in the actions of the network.”
It’s never comfortable when the demands of capitalism bump up against the forms of media that ostensibly exist to inform us of matters of life and death and other developments far more important than a fast casual promotion. But if we’re going to have our cable news networks built around the traditional advertising model developed around entertainment programming—and as split-screen advertising increasingly becomes the norm—this is a risk that comes with the territory. Ultimately, this is what Applebee’s paid for. And now, CNN has ensured that everyone in America is talking about Applebee’s.