These four dudes have made such convincing ads for chain restaurants that even the restaurants themselves weren't sure if they were real.
Screengrab via YouTube
What a time to be alive—or at least, alive and living near an Olive Garden. When your parents' favorite carpeted Italian chain restaurant launched its Unlimited Pasta Passes in 2014, it sold 2,000 of the little buggers faster than you could say "Don't forget the Mylanta." This year, the chain sold 22,000 passes in less than one second. The OG also expanded its menu to (temporarily) include spaghetti pie and to launch a line of breadstick sandwiches, which, sadly, are not made of breadsticks stacked between two pieces of bread. (So meta.)
So what's next for Olive Garden? Breadsticks to-go? A lasagna burger? Those are both possibilities, at least in the minds of the Merkin Bros. The Los Angeles-based collective has been responsible for subtle parodies of Dell, Abercrombie, and Taco Bell, and some of their faux commercials have been so realistic that even the companies themselves weren't sure whether their own ad agencies were responsible. (More on that in a sec).
In their most recent piece, the Bros have taken on Olive Garden, proposing a drive-thru version for when you're jonesing for those breadsticks, but just don't have the time to sit at an actual table. They also understand that America's relationship with Olive Garden is such that people either sincerely love these concepts or pat their own backs for appreciating them ironically. "I'm from Wyoming and I grew up loving Olive Garden," Merkin Bro Christian Heuer told MUNCHIES. "This is no joke, we would drive from Salt Lake City to go to it and, to me, it was an amazing restaurant. It wasn't until I went to college when someone was like 'Olive Garden? That's gross' and I thought, wait, you don't love Olive Garden too?"
MUNCHIES talked to the Merkin Bros—Heuer, Austyn Jeffs, Tom Banks, and Mike Bernstein—about what prompted them to imagine a drive-thru Olive Garden, whether they'd eat a lasagna burger, and why we should look for farting ducks. (Because—as in any family or "family"—the Bros talked over each other and finished each other's sentences, their answers have been credited to the group as a whole).
MUNCHIES: What made you form the Merkin Bros and start making these parodies?
MERKIN BROS: We all work in the film industry in different capacities, and a lot of us work in advertising, so this was a way to have fun with some of those advertising tropes that we all see on an everyday basis.
I didn't want to assume that you were agency guys, but these spots really nail the look, feel, and tone of real commercials.
We've all worked in commercials in various capacities and have shot, directed, and done a lot of branded content work for websites like Funny or Die. We're used to working alongside agencies and marrying ourselves to a look and a visual language of a brand and what they give us. When we take on one of these spots, we'll analyze product shots, go look at everything they've done, and try to figure out how to say what we want to say in their voice. We take a lot of pride in how we can cop any style we want, for very little money. Everything on our website was made for next to nothing.
It looks like you shot the "Gay Taco Bell" spot guerrilla style. Did you just go into the restaurant and film before they knew what was up? Yeah, with Gay Taco Bell, we just ran around Orange County all day in a van from another shoot we'd booked over the weekend. We ran into Taco Bell without… anything, and they were all cool with it. With the Olive Garden spot, we shot all of those exteriors at a really nice bougie McDonald's, again without permission. We just camped out, got our shots, and blocked their drive-thru for a little while.
How'd that go over?
The employees were super stoked, like "Oh my God, you're doing a short film! We were like "Yeah!" If you look at the If you look at the second or third shot, we asked the McDonald's employees to hand us the Olive Garden bag and she was totally down with it. The arm in the wide shot is from McDonald's.
Since they do look like legit commercials, how many people fall for them?
It depends project to project. Even though the Gay Taco Bell one wasn't lauded as being real, it still got picked up by a lot of conservative sites. If you go to the comments, a lot of people were like "I'm never eating at Taco Bell again" and "I'm so disappointed in Taco Bell for doing this," even though if they did a 20-second Google search, they could see that it was fake. We do try to put one scene in every video that we think is going to be what we call "the farting duck moment" [a reference to the group's Dell commercial] where people will know it's fake. Sometimes we're wrong.
With the Olive Garden spot, I was with it until the lasagna burger happened.
You did it, you passed the test.
What made you choose Olive Garden for this new video?
We feel like Olive Garden is kind of hilarious. We all have our own childhood memories of that establishment, and it's a brand and restaurant that people have varied opinions about. Some people love it, others think it's just a notch above fast food, and we wanted to play into that. Plus, that allowed us to come up with some fun food creations that we hope to see on plates for real at some point. Like the alfredo pocket.
I would eat that, because I'm garbage.
If there was a drive-thru Olive Garden, we would all 100 percent go. When we were actually shooting the food shots in our friend's garage, once we saw the items, we all thought, "We would eat this." If it was 2 AM, instead of a sloppy Big Mac, this sounds great.
Did you work with a food stylist for this, or were those items digitally created?
Everything that you see is for real. We got a recommendation for a food stylist through the chef Giada De Laurentiis. One of our friends works for her, so a friend-of-a-friend who does that professionally helped us figure out how to bring these fake products to life.
How'd that work out?
The 'alfredo pocket' was a Hot Pocket with noodles spray glued to it. It was actually very hard to do, with many hours of bizarre, tedious work in the backyard, trying to make it look interesting on camera.
Do you think those products went far enough? I mean, this is the country that has the Unlimited Pasta Pass?
America never ceases to surprise us. A few years ago, when the Doritos Loco Taco appeared, I didn't think that was a real thing when someone told me about it. We try to make these [spots] for a smart audience, but we're OK with not everyone getting it. In fact, we kind of like that. We do also feel like that this is one notch from being real.
Have you heard from Olive Garden?
Not yet, but we hope they like it. These companies have such crazy PR teams now that they'll eventually find it, so hopefully Olive Garden will see it and maybe give us a few sentences that they appreciate...the craftsmanship. [laughter]
Taco Bell got in touch though, right?
Taco Bell invited us down there. We eventually met with them, about two months after the video was uploaded to the internet, and Taco Bell had responded with something like, "We don't know who made this, but they share our Live Mas! Passion" They said that they'd prepared a response right away, but they actually thought that their own ad agency had made it on spec. They were actually not sure—because it's such a large company—they told us that they weren't sure if it was a real commercial from an agency or not.
That had to feel like a huge success.
Absolutely. One of the things that they said that really stuck with us was, "We always wanted to be a brand with a point of view, and we feel like you guys expressed that in our voice." We thought, Great, put more gay people in your commercials, then.
Thanks for speaking with us.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
This article originally appeared on MUNCHIES in September 2017.