By REBECCA DANA
Kendra Wilkinson, a Playboy cover model, television star and one of Hugh Hefner's three live-in girlfriends, professes deep love for the Olive Garden Italian restaurant chain.
The feeling isn't mutual.
To the consternation of Olive Garden's marketers, who have spent millions crafting the franchise's family-friendly image, the 23-year-old adult-entertainment star and aspiring real-estate mogul repeatedly uses her spotlight to rave about its midprice eateries. Ms. Wilkinson hoists Olive Garden doggie bags in the air and extols its chicken parmigiana. She once scandalized European diners by declaring the Olive Garden preferable to any restaurants in Italy.
Ms. Wilkinson, whose tan skin and blonde-white hair project classic California, isn't on the payroll. She is a rogue brand ambassador: a celebrity who is genuinely, publicly devoted to a product or service, even if he or she doesn't quite embody the values that the brand's managers may be trying to convey.
Executives at Olive Garden declined to discuss the uninvited spokesmodel. One official says the company has tried to walk a fine line with its response, maintaining the chain's wholesome image without alienating potential customers. "I don't feel comfortable talking about this...because it is a complicated issue for the brand," says Michele Kay, executive vice president of WPP Group's Grey advertising firm, which handles the Olive Garden account.
Ms. Wilkinson says that when she started praising the restaurant on television and on her very popular MySpace page, it never crossed her mind what the folks at Olive Garden might think. "I don't speak about it to get paid for it," she says. "I speak about it because I love it. I understand they're a family restaurant, but I think it can't hurt them to have a little spice."
As media outlets fragment and the advertising landscape grows cluttered, companies are increasingly realizing the value of a popular star's sincere -- and unpaid -- endorsement of a product. In 2003, Thai Union Frozen PCL's Chicken of the Sea capitalized on a big pop-culture moment by inviting singer Jessica Simpson to visit their offices. Ms. Simpson had just made headlines for wondering aloud, on national television, whether the canned product contained chicken or tuna.
But unsolicited endorsements can backfire, particularly when the star is controversial. In 2006, the hip-hop community was publicly embracing an array of luxury brands, rapping about Courvoisier cognac, wearing Tommy Hilfiger clothing and driving Cadillac Escalades. In the summer of 2006, the Economist quoted an executive at Champagne Louis Roederer's Cristal saying, "We can't forbid people from buying it. I'm sure Dom Perignon or Krug would be delighted to have their business."
The rapper Jay-Z called the comment racist and instigated an embarrassing boycott. Since then, other companies beset with unplanned, and perhaps undesirable, endorsements have reacted with a careful mix of distance and passivity.
"The question is: 'Do you have to love someone who loves you?'" says Dave Balter, founder and chief executive of BzzAgent, a Boston-based word-of-mouth media company. The answer is a squishy yes and no. "The worst thing to do is turn off someone who is that passionate about you," says Mr. Balter. "A brand doesn't have to actively embrace someone like Kendra, but they should certainly be willing to accept the fact that she's willing to tell the world how much she loves them."
Starbucks Corp. has a policy of remaining mum when celebrities turn up with its familiar coffee cups on the pages of tabloid magazines. The company is just as quiet when popular actress Reese Witherspoon or troubled pop star Britney Spears is photographed with its product.
Politicians eager to protect their candidacies have faced a similar dilemma. In the 2008 election cycle, unsought endorsers have swarmed the presidential candidates. New York Sen. Hillary Clinton earned the support of O.J. Simpson. Presumptive Democratic nominee Sen. Barack Obama had to disavow a song released by the rapper Ludacris in late July that praised the candidate and bashed Sen. Clinton. On July 29, pop icon Phil Spector, about to face retrial for charges related to the 2003 murder of actress Lana Clarkson, wore a "Barack Obama Rocks" pin to a court hearing in Los Angeles.
Yet Sen. Obama has also benefited incalculably from an array of celebrity endorsements, including those of Oprah Winfrey, Scarlett Johansson and Black Eyed Peas' frontman Will.i.am.
"This is the double-edged sword of brand advocacy," says Pete Blackshaw, executive vice president of Nielsen Online Strategic Services and author of a book about brand ambassadors. "Generally speaking, brands benefit from unprompted advocacy, but every once in awhile, there will be surprises. It's very difficult to manage."
Earlier this year, buoyed by her starring role on "The Girls Next Door," a highly rated reality show that follows the lives of Mr. Hefner's girlfriends, Ms. Wilkinson launched a modeling competition for attractive Olive Garden waitresses. The prize: a nude Playboy pictorial. Ms. Wilkinson took the contestants' photographs herself.
"Our position is that our team members as private citizens have freedom to participate," says Olive Garden spokesman Mara Frazier. "While we're not endorsing the initiative, we're not making choices for our employees." Olive Garden is a unit of Orlando, Fla.-based Darden Restaurants Inc., which also owns the Red Lobster seafood chain.
Playboy has made similar mischief before, running contests for such groups as employees of Wal-Mart and McDonald's and students from Ivy League schools. But Ms. Wilkinson's affection for Olive Garden comes from a deeper place.
'My Soul Food'
The San Diego native says she made frequent trips to the restaurant during her childhood, developing a taste for the artichoke dip and the all-you-can-eat salad and breadsticks. She calls it "my soul food."
"I love the Olive Garden so much because I grew up going there," she says. "That used to be the place we would go for Mother's Day, for birthdays. My grandpa just died, and right after his funeral, we went to the Olive Garden."
During a recent tour of Italy, Ms. Wilkinson, followed by "The Girls Next Door" cameras, was asked how that country's finest cuisine compares with her favorite restaurant's.
"It doesn't," she declared, flustering some of her dining companions. Ms. Wilkinson now says she meant to say that the food is on par -- but what's missing is the sentimental attachment she has to the Olive Garden.