Denny’s Grand Slam Freebie has me hungry for some real news

Denny's Grand Slam Breakfast

Breakfast @ Denny's

If you’re a PR pro, tip your hat to the folks who staged yesterday’s publicity coup (sample) on behalf of Denny’s Restaurants. You’ll be hard pressed to find a newspaper or TV station that didn’t cover it.

Why anyone would stand in line — sometimes for hours — to get a free $6 breakfast is beyond me. But they did, and Denny’s gained millions of dollars in news coverage as a result.

picture-1The health nuts among you might criticize Denny’s for doling out some 2 million, grease-laden, high-cholesterol meals. But no one forced the customers to wolf down the 1040-calorie breakfast. About half of those calories come from fat, by the way.

We all know that most bacon and sausage comes from factory hog farms famous for the inhumane treatment of animals and the hiring of illegal immigrants. We also know that fatty pork is bad for our bodies. Very bad. But it tastes so damned good, most of us look the other way.

But where’s the news value here? What upsets me most about the Denny’s Free Breakfast promotion is that it made news at all. It simply doesn’t qualify under any definition I know. OK, it’s a tad unusual, but a free-food giveaway is hardly “man bites dog.”

Still, the news media ran to this story faster than a hungry hog to a freshly loaded trough. It was an easy story to cover, as it took no real fact-finding or research. The reporter simply read the news release and headed to a Denny’s to interview a few hungry patrons. Done.

As PR professional, you gotta congratulate Denny’s and/or the firm behind this pseudo event. But if you’re a journalist with any respect for the craft, you have to be a little embarrassed about giving so much coverage to a story that deserved so little.

But the media bought it. A publicity bonanza to be sure, but I’m sorta glad I wasn’t part of it. It just feels cheesy.

Maybe this sort of fluff is exactly what people want to see in the headlines.  If that’s the case, then maybe we deserve it what we get. But you know, it does kinda make me hungry.

Grand Slam Breakfast photo courtesy of jumanggy.


28 Responses to Denny’s Grand Slam Freebie has me hungry for some real news

  1. Ike says:

    Denny’s total expenditure, for the ad and the free food, was under $6,000,000. You’re not disputing they got more than that back in exposure.

    The hook that made this “excusable” (by ever-declining standards of journalism) is the tie-in to the economy. Local news outlets could use this as an easy touch on the “a free lunch for tough times” angle, and not feel guilty for stopping to eat themselves.

    Given the amount of publicity Denny’s garnered, I’m shocked that PeTA hasn’t piggy-backed in its own inimitable fashion, by releasing stats on how unhealthy those Grand Slams are, and how many extra animals Denny’s killed that day.

    (Disclosure: I am not a vegetarian, and when confronted by militant vegetarians I go out of my way to order as many varieties of meat as can fit on a pizza.)

  2. Mich says:

    As a consumer facing tough times, I appreciate the gesture. As a news junkie entering Obama fatigue, I welcome a little bit of fluff.

  3. Bill Sledzik says:

    I don’t dispute the value Denny’s got for this promotion. I would add that most of the customers I saw in the local stories were black. Given Denny’s not-to-positive history with the African-American community, add yet another positive note to the story.

    And no, I don’t think it’s Denny’s job to be the “fat police” in society. When you eat the Grand Slam, you know exactly what you’re getting, or at least you should.

    The economic hook is the only one you can hang this story on, but it’s a pretty weak one. I mean, a $6 breakfast is hardly gonna save the family budget.

    Where was PETA? Who knows? I don’t have much use for that group, though I would like to spend a weekend with the asparagus girl in the banned Super Bowl ad!

  4. Jamie says:

    When I was a reporter, my editor sent me out to write a local story about that one guy who finally lost on Jeopardy a few years back after racking up the most wins in history. I thought it was a stupid story idea at the time, but he was the boss, and I suppose I could see the value of it in that it was a big topic of conversation.

    Although I’ve crossed to the dark side, I don’t think there is anything wrong with publicity stunts. They become newsworthy because people are talking about them. Imagine if media ignored these types of stories because they are silly. They’d look utterly out of touch.

    I don’t think the right answer to our media mix is an either/or proposition to “fluff.” I read the NY Times and Washington Post religiously, but I also sneak a peak at on occasion.

  5. Breeze says:

    But if you’re a journalist with any respect for the craft, you have to be a little embarrassed about giving so much coverage to a story that deserved so little.

    Maybe Mencken’s maxim for government applies to news coverage as well. They look at what we watch and read, and they give it to us. That gives me faint hope for the citizenry, and makes me doubt that much respect remains for the what’s left of the craft.

  6. mediatide says:

    This not an excuse for the TV news biz, but a fact: Denny’s advertises a lot on TV. And if you don’t think TV news helps their sugar daddies out occasionally, I’ve got bridge for sale next to some swampland in Arizona!

  7. Ike says:


    Having worked in television news, let me assure you that there is ZERO interest in getting the newsroom to lean a little favorably for Denny’s.

    First, any ad dollars that are spent for local advertising by a chain like Denny’s comes through national sales reps — the local account execs have no pull.

    Second, with no local decision-making ass to kiss, why go through the headache of giving the old-school hardliners in the newsroom something to puff their ethics-chests about?

    Third… have you seen the coverage that Krispy Kreme gets when it moves into new markets? Morning shows bend over backwards for them, and cars magically line up on opening morning. It’s a self referential cliche that has become a self-fulfilling prophecy. And KK isn’t spending its way in — modern newsrooms just roll over for that.

    By accusing them of playing Sugar-Daddy pay-for-play, you’re granting them a level of sophistication and brains they have not yet earned.


  8. marketingsociologist says:

    What a wonderful age we live in. I’d love to hear the Silver Anvil or Gold Quill on this one. I live in Phoenix and I heard about it on a San Diego radio station. Isn’t the Internet wonderful?

    Now for the rest of the story, as Paul Harvey would say. Did you know a chain called Quik Trip was giving sandwiches at some location the same day? How about Village Inn giving away fruit pie slices the day after the Grand Slam fest? Didn’t hear of either of these?

    How about the fact that every spring, around March, Starbucks gives out free coffee?

    Would love to talk to the Denny’s people who put that together. I have a feeling they did it the old fashioned way without utilizing social media.

  9. Jef Loeb says:

    From LinkedIn to your blog – nice to know we’re all tracking this stuff, eh?

    Meanwhile, while I appreciate a good case of the curmudgeons as much as the next cynic, you have to admit that the results suggest the stunt was worthy. As an advertising, not PR guy, I particularly appreciate the restraint showed by the client in allowing Goodby to incorporate the giveaway as an organic element in one commercial instead of bastardizing the whole campaign by forcing the thing.

    So, okay, maybe the Grand Slam is cardiac arrest on a plate. But what do you figure the calorie count of the wiseguy’s whipped-cream pancake breakfasts to be?

  10. Bill Sledzik says:

    This was a highly successful promotion, albeit not an original one. But it worked, so I won’t quibble over creativity or lack of it.

    If I’m being curmudgeonly (and I am), it’s over the lack of news judgment exercised by the major media outlets. This isn’t really news. In fact, it’s not even all that interesting. But it sure delivered value for Denny’s. On that we can all agree.

    BTW, I love artery-clogging breakfasts as much as the next guy. If people want them, Denny’s should sell them. It’s the libertarian in me.

  11. Bill Huey says:

    Damn–I missed it!
    Seems to me this passes the old AP test for news:
    1) Who cares? (Nearly everybody who eats)
    2) Why do they care? (It’s free!)
    3) Why do they care now? (Times are tough, and a free full breakfast–not just a bagel or a donut–is worth turning up for)

  12. Bill Sledzik says:

    I’m catching a good bit of flack on this one (pun intended). Fact is, I teach my students early on that it’s often PR’s job to create news out of thin air. But I also teach them to carefully follow the “values of news.” Bill, you make a great case for the newsworthiness of Denny’s promotion without even adding that some 2 million Americans participated in it.

    I still don’t like the fact that our mainstream media are so easily roped in by gimmicks like this. Yeah, I pitched many a gimmicky story over the years, every one of them in a marketing context — shilling for something. It all has a P.T. Barnum feel to it, but in this case it’s the 4th estate who are the suckers.

  13. mediatide says:


    Obviously I didn’t check my facts on Denny’s ad strategy as you did, as a good news reporter would. I verified their national strategy by doing some web research. I probably should have rephrased it as a rhetorical question. The pressure from sales and management does happen, but I should not have implied that it happened in this case. I wrote the comment in a hurry.

    marketingsociologist: Denny’s advertised on the Super Bowl, which gave them a huge advantage over the other places. Plus, they have a higher brand awareness than VIP and the local joint.

  14. Rob Jewell says:

    I guess since the Denny’s promotion was such a great success we will see a flurry of similar stories. The Akron Beacon Journal devoted the bulk of its skimpy business section this morning to the opening of a Chick-fil-A in Copley Township. News hook? First 100 customers get coupons for 52 free combo meals. Hope they survive the frigid temps. Otherwise we will have a story.

  15. Blair Boone says:

    Bill, you’re missing an important point. It was an ad agency that created the ad and promotion, not a PR firm. Goodby Silverstein really gets integrated marketing — they’ve practically reinvented what was already one of the best creative and strategic shops in the country to leverage all the communication channels for their clients.

    They also have the Hyundai account, which means they’ve scored another consumer-oriented coup with the “we’ll take your car back if you lose your job” campaign. Hyundai sales up 14%.

    Why is it a gimmick to give away free food in a brutal recession? Why is it a gimmick to offer a buy-back to people who lose their incomes? Looks like very smart, timely marketing — executed brilliantly, by the way, because Goodby still does really good work — that’s leveraging paid advertising to create genuine buzz for a tremendous multiplier effect.

    No PR professionals were harmed in making these ads. They were, however, rendered sort of irrelevant. As a new media/social media guy, you should appreciate how and why that happened in these cases.

  16. Bill Sledzik says:

    OK, I guess I’ll have to say it again. What Denny’s did was great marketing, and it’s the kind of thing I and other PR folks have been doing for years.

    It was easy to do, and not terribly original. Free food giveaways are done all the time, though seldom on this scale. And Blair, you are correct: No PR professionals were harmed, and the PR professionals who drove the publicity machine (and I guarantee you there were PR professionals) will likely get a well-deserved bonus for a job well done.

    Kudos to Denny’s and the agency for generating headlines. But my post wasn’t directed at those who planned and executed the promotion, but at the saps in the news news media who covered such an insignificant story and elevated it to front-page news.

    Interesting irony here. The news media that played up this story are showing Denny’s and others that they need not spend heavily on media advertising to drive sales. Bad business move on their part, too.

    Yesterday Denny’s, today Chick-fil-A. Tomorrow? How about the Whopper Diet?

    I’d just like some real news. Is that too much to ask?

  17. Hmmm, Bill, I agree. The airwaves (and people’s arteries) clogged with free Grand Slam giveaways, like it is a news event. Imagine, there is a two-front war going on and the nation is on the verge of depression as millions of people cope with loss of jobs/homes.

    Journalists stand on Mount Olympus, trumpets blaring, capes waving, battling for truth, justice, and the American Way, yet this is the swill they run over and over and over. It is more than a little hypocritical. Then, if criticized, journalists somehow want to push it all off on PR.

    And, I certainly don’t argue for the media giving us some real news on elitist grounds, my pop culture cred is long-established. But, I have to think that decades of watering down the public’s news expectations has had a negative consequence on society’s critical thinking and reasoning skills.

    Maybe it’s too large a jump from free Grand Slams to the overall decline of critical thinking skills, but there are important ramifications when publicity stunts lead national news coverage.

  18. David32767 says:

    Bill, can’t it be said that the ‘mainstream’ media outlets are providing ‘news’ items that the people want to hear about? In reality, so much information is available these days I think I decide what’s ‘real’ news and what’s not in terms of me. Are you peeved because you think the big media outlets should look and act and provide ‘my father’s- Cronkite style news’? For example, i happen to think your Connolly interview was news TO ME. Guide me. Where am I missing the point? Isn’t the definition of ‘real’ news truly subjective and personal? I am sorry that for us lower IQ and shallow types real news means Hollywood gossip.There are bigger societal issues in changing that view. Honestly, you sound like my grandfather moaning about the ‘rock and roll’ and describing what ‘real’ music is. Last I looked we are all still standing after the Beatles invaded- just sayin’ !

  19. Bill Sledzik says:


    I don’t want to insult you, but you really should spend some time hitting the history books and learning about the role of an independent news media in a free society. If you do that, you’ll learn that an independent media provide critical checks against abuses by government, business, and other organizations.

    Your postmodern view of news news being entirely subjective has a lot of supporters. But if you are saying that a story about the Denny’s breakfast giveaway is somehow more important, say, than an investigation into a threat to public health or a government corruption scandal… well, I said it in my last paragraph: You deserve what you get.

    The job of an independent media is not only to give us what we WANT, but to give us what we NEED if we’re continue to thrive as a free society. If you prefer the content of TMZ or OMG, hey, it’s a free country. For now.

  20. Bill Huey says:

    It’s a fact wanting some real news is a sure sign of advancing age, but Friday’s “wear red” schtick by the mainstream media to promote awareness of women’s cardiac issues is a good example of the stuff that constantly gets in the way of real news.
    Now we have pink, red, yellow and green. What about a “wear black” day as a reminder that we all shall perish from this earth? I’d like to see Fox try that on some of their chirpy little Barbies.

  21. Bill Sledzik says:

    How about a “wear nothing” day, Bill? While the idea of “naked news” isn’t original, it would get me watching the Fox info-babes. Somewhere in the heavens Peter Finch (the Howard Beale character in “Network”) is smiling at all this. Another sign of advancing age: You reference movies released before most of your readers were born! (If you watch the clip, think of me as William Holden.)

  22. Robert Checkal says:

    I checked out the newsroom. They lack video and b-roll, but I bet you could get it on special request. They do have about four news releases for print though. haha.

  23. Kate says:

    I work in TV news, on a web site. Anything that barks is news. It doesn’t have to bite.

  24. Bill Sledzik says:

    And this story certainly barked. All you had to do was hold out the microphone. Sigh.

  25. David32767 says:

    Bill. That was exactly the enlightenment I was needing to put it all in perspective, thank you! I forgot the ‘need’factor and the whole checks and balances thing. Sadly, this now makes me think about bias in indpendent news media. Keep up the good work- it’s rough sledding you know!

  26. Bill Sledzik says:

    You’re most welcome, David. I specialize in enlightenment. And that’s “tough” sledding — with a “t.”

  27. I’m not sure I’d want to be the VP of Marketing talking ROI to the board. On a good day, according to Hoovers, it appears that Denny’s has a 16% gross margin – not net, gross. If the cost was $6 million as is said here, that means break-even on Gross Profit would require $34 million in new revenue, which is more than twice their average weekly sales.

    Has anyone seen any reported numbers? Anyone believe people remember that promotion had brand staying power?

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