Olive Garden disses Playboy model Kendra Wilkinson

Most companies would do anything for a celebrity endorsement, but the Olive Garden is looking askance at the over-friendly overtures from Playboy model Kendra Wilkinson, who just loves her some Olive Garden. The Wall St. Journal reports that the unofficial association is turning into unwelcome attention and is making the restaurant nervous.

Wilkinson, for her part, remains unabashed. The 23-year-old, who lives with Hugh Hefner and two other of his girlfriends, takes every opportunity to talk about how much she loves the food at the Italian eatery -- even when traveling in Italy. She has sponsored a modeling contest for Olive Garden waitresses, talked about the restaurant on TV and her MySpace page and generally caused the owners of the Olive Garden, the Darden Restaurant group, which also owns Red Lobster, to blush.

Despite the number of troublesome celebrities out there, there have been relatively few incidents of this sort over the last couple of decades. Most companies take the approach that any publicity is good publicity and remain silent on the antics of stars (A- through Z-list) who are pictured using their products. As long as no big-money contracts with morals clauses are involved, which has led to many a firing in recent years, they just let it go.

The Journal details the few notable dust-ups: Jay-Z boycotting Cristal champagne after the CEO of the company seems to disparage the rappers who loved the brand; Tommy Hilfiger constantly dodging rumors that he didn't appreciate the popularity of his clothes with the hip-hop set; political candidates staying mum on unsolicited endorsements from unsavory celebs, and, of course, Playboy sponsoring modeling contests for McDonald's employees.

Most of the time, companies are trying to give their products away to any celebrity that will take them. Called "swag" (for "stuff we all get") the freebies range from branded t-shirts to $10,000 vacations -- and all now are taxable. Gift bags for major award shows can be worth over $100,000, and anyone who has ever been in show business can score tens of thousands worth of stuff just for showing up at the Sundance Film Festival.

As an entertainment journalism journalist for most of my career, I witnessed this swag behemoth grow to exponential levels over the past 15 years, which makes me wonder why the Olive Garden would even bother to respond. Some tides you just can't fight.
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