Applebee’s Drawn into Live CNN Coverage of War in Ukraine

Restaurant Chain Responds Quickly After Network Displays Its Ad in Split Screen with War Scenes from Kyiv

2/27/22 – – Early Thursday morning, during the initial hours of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, viewers watching CNN’s coverage were jolted by a split-screen pairing of live war footage with an upbeat 15-second ad for Applebee’s.

Dramatic scenes with smoke in the distance kept rolling in a box in the lower left corner of the screen, while video in the center of the screen featured foam-topped glasses of beer and the details of a $1 offer for five boneless chicken wings with the purchase of a hamburger. The sounds of air raid sirens were drowned out by the chorus of Zac Brown Band’s hit song “Chicken Fried.”

You know I like my chicken fried

Cold beer on a Friday night

A pair of jeans that fit just right

And the radio up . . .

CNN left the headings “RUSSIA INVADES UKRAINE” and “Live CNN Coverage Continues” on the screen as the Applebee’s ad played.

The Twitterverse served up a main course of anger and disbelief, with a side of sarcasm. Most of the criticism was directed at Applebee’s:

“Applebee’s couldn’t get a Super Bowl commercial, so they took the WW3 CNN slot.”

“OH COME ON! Further proof of my long-held theory that Applebees is the antichrist.” 

“Might want to chat with CNN about your ad placement.”

“We’re living in an episode of South Park.”

The restaurant chain quickly responded, issuing this statement to reporters:

“We are deeply concerned about the situation in Ukraine. 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.”

What the astonished audience was seeing was a television advertising format called “squeezeback.” It’s used most often during live sporting events and even on Saturday Night Live. In squeezeback mode, an ad plays while we continue to see players on the field during a time-out, or the SNL stage being dressed for the next sketch. The theory is that the split screen will hold viewers during the commercial break by reminding them that live events are still unfolding.  

With that goal in mind — can’t let our audience flip over to FOX News — CNN deployed squeezeback during the height of its war coverage without recognizing (or maybe dismissing) the inappropriateness of this juxtaposition. The network has apologized to Applebee’s, expressed its regret to viewers, and confirmed that it will no longer be using the squeezeback advertising format during live news coverage.  

Let me propose a toast to the Applebee’s management and communication team. They deserve high marks for not only the speed with which they responded, but also the decisiveness of the action they took. The company added credence to its “Hey, don’t blame us” statement by suspending all advertising on CNN. That sent a strong message to the network and viewers.

A reputational crisis was averted. But now, tragically, the heart-breaking war coverage continues.

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