How Subway Sandwiches Devoured TV’s Shows, Scripts

Jared Fogle Subway
Brian Ach/Getty Images

Sandwich chain seeks to be "invited guest with speaking role" as TV nets toss out old rules about ads in shows

In real life, people chow down on everything from McDonald’s to Chinese food. So why does it feel like everyone on TV has a yen for Subway sandwiches?

Over the past six years or so, Subway has chomped its way into dialogue, plotlines and sets on everything from NBC’s now-defunct “Chuck” and CBS’ “Hawaii Five-0” to ABC’s “Suburgatory.” Its logos, cups and sandwiches have also made their way to ABC’s “The Middle” and NBC’s “Community,” among other boob-tube favorites. And the appearances are anything but demure.

During the first season of the musically-themed ABC serial “Nashville,” Subway figured into a plotline to build a new stadium in town, festooned with Subway’s logo, of course.  On the aforementioned CBS adventure drama, the prominence of Subway in one episode was so distracting that viewers took to the Web to complain. Subway’s ad tie-ins with programming have grown so strong in recent years that the chain’s financial commitment to “Chuck” was instrumental in keeping the ratings-challenged spy show on the air for a season or two more.

“We are kind of looking to be an invited guest with a speaking role,” said Tony Pace, chief marketing officer of the Subway Franchisees Advertising Fund Trust, the chain’s consumer-marketing arm. “The classic product placement model is not where we are. Just having our logo is nice, but it’s not enough. We’d rather have some message communicated.”

Small wonder that TV characters are tossing off Subway references at the drop of a few sponsorship dollars. Yet by booking such appearances, Subway is demonstrating just how quickly the TV networks have abandoned long-standing rules about weaving ad messages into their programs. Gone are policies that allowed ad logos on-screen during sports events or a product placement in a popular reality show, but barred the door to sitcoms and dramas. Now there’s a sense embedding ad messages in programs can help the networks keep their hands on advertisers’ cash. Subway spent approximately $327.4 million on TV advertising in 2008, according to Kantar Media, compared with around $445.9 million in 2012.

CBS in 2004 had already put blue-chip sponsors in “Survivor,” which debuted in 2000, but was still debating over whether to open prime real-estate –comedies and dramas- to techniques that would do more than let a certain kind of vehicle appear on-screen. Now the network puts General Motors’ Chevrolet in “Hawaii Five-0,” and has even allowed the advertiser to be the exclusive auto sponsor of theshow.

In the past, NBC actually turned this stuff down: In 2003, the Peacock vetoed a lucrative package that would have put products from Sony and Lincoln-Mercury into its drama “Las Vegas.” At the time, the networks were concerned that having a car from one automaker in a show would mean rivals would decline to advertise in the same program, causing all kinds of financial headaches. Peacock parent NBCUniversal just weeks ago set a single executive, Alison Tarrant, to weave advertisers into programs and promotions across the company’s many cable and broadcast outlets

Simply put, embracing the products has soothed other advertising maladies, like TV viewers using DVRs to skip past commercials; marketers pruning their ad spend on TV to invest in emerging media like streaming video or mobile; and ongoing broadcast ratings erosion. To keep advertisers happy and feeling like they are getting more for their money, TV networks have had to open their programs in ways they might not have considered a decade ago. Consider the example of “Modern Family,” which has managed to get three different automakers to place their vehicles in its show at the same time (not to mention allowing Oreo to play a pivotal moment in an opening scene). Or take Discovery’s “Shark Week,” which for the past two years has featured a shark-observation cage in the shape of whatever Beetle Volkswagen wanted to promote.

“It’s not even a point of being permissive,” said Brent Poer, president of North American operations for LiquidThread, a unit of ad buyer Starcom MediaVest Group that helps marketers weave their products into shows. “It’s a function that finally they need the revenue generated from doing these sorts of deals.”

That need has given Subway’s Pace entry into some unusual moments on some of America’s best-known TV shows. A character on NBC’s “Chuck” was spotted delivering a Subway sandwich to his boss in a 2009 episode, then talking up the chain’s “$5 footlong” ad slogan immediately afterwards. Subway has been spotted for years in NBC’s “The Biggest Loser,” with contestants often visiting Subway outlets. CBS gave up almost a full minute in its “Hawaii Five-0” drama in 2012 to let three of the show’s characters talk about Subway sandwiches and weight loss, a move that was derided by critic Mike Hale of the New York Times, who called the appearance “the most jarring, disruptive and insulting example I’ve seen” of product placement on TV.

Pace does not apologize for taking up valuable air time. In an era when so many consumers turn to social-media outlets to chat about the minutiae of their favorite TV programs, he said, he needs to give viewers something to talk about that will increase their interest in traditional Subway ads. “Marketing, in my estimation, is increasingly about sharable content,” said Pace.  “This stuff is incredibly sharable and it certainly creates conversation.”

Does it overwhelm the TV programs? Producers behind “Nashville,” “Suburgatory” and “Hawaii Five-0” either declined to comment or were not made available for comment.

But Pace said Subway generally tries to give creative executives a free hand. “The funny thing about ‘Hawaii Five-0,’ frankly, they did what they wanted to do. We actually said, ‘You can do a lot less,’ but they were comfortable with that.”

Subway’s meals are more welcome on TV because producers often get cash from these deals that they can then put back into the show. An ad pact might help fund shooting at a remote location, for example, or a better set. Meantime, TV networks have become more familiar with the process, which was less rule-bound just a decade ago, said David Lang, president of MindShare Entertainment North America, a WPP unit that creates so-called “branded content.”

In current ad-sales structures, he said, “there is more of a choreography.” Advertisers are more sophisticated about the practice and are “getting more specific in what they ask for, like ‘we want this feature being talked about and we want to make sure it’s in the month of February.’”

To procure the deals, Subway uses an in-house unit to follow shows and try to work ad messages into them, said Pace, along with a West Coast operative he declined to name. An appearance in NBC’s ”The Office” late last season was the result of months of casual talks; an opportunity finally presented itself. One ad buyer familiar with Subway’s business said the company typically bakes product appearances into its upfront agreements with TV networks, so that there’s no confusion when Subway gets mentions or set time later on in the season.

Subway’s efforts continue. The chain turned up recently during NBC’s “Million Second Quiz,” spurring at-home contestants to try to win Subway footlongs. And in an interesting twist, Subway is now letting some TV shows take up space in its commercials: A recent Subway spot featured its popular spokes-dieter Jared Fogle along with two former contestants from NBC’s “The Biggest Loser.”

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  1. Lou Paskalis says:

    So dissapointed about the state of play here. I was in the product integration business ten years ago and it is alarming at the lack of evolution in the thinking. Poer and Lang don’t mention the viewer, audience insights or how integration should be additive to the viewing experience even once in their comments. The “best” integrations are so seamlessly executed that they are barely noticable. This creates an authenticity for the products that preserves the implied endorsement which is the true desired outcome. Tony Pace doesn’t get it either, creating social currency by disrupting fans’ favorite programs with sloppy and overt messages is vanity run amok. This isn’t branded entertainment, these are examples of entertainment tainted by confused brand marketers and beguiling agency factors who look to make a quick buck and a vibrant highlight reel, at the expense of the audience and to the detriment of the medium. Serve the audience and you will serve your best interests in the process. #FAIL.

  2. R Sweeney says:

    It’s more than pay-for-play, Hollywood feels guilty about McDonalds and hamburgers.

    But thanks to Jared, who eats only the smallest vegetarian sub on the menu, they can feel good about pushing subs.

    Who cares if the latest subs on the Subway menu have over 1000 calories in a standard 12″ (or is that 11″?) size, which is TWICE the calories and more fat than in a Big Mac with two patties, special sauce, lettuce and cheese on a sesame seed bun.

    Very predictable in the Hollywood monoculture.

  3. w629 says:

    What’s really shocking about this story is that anyone is actually watching prime time TV shows on the “traditional” networks. The only sitcom worthy of that description is “The Big Bang Theory” and as for drama, um, they all pretty much reek. I gave up on CBS, NBC and ABC except for sports. And the drek on Fox isn’t much to rave about either.

  4. Frank W says:

    In My Best Gail KIng Imitation from The Toyota Green Room, “Where is your sense of Broadcast History #BrianSteinberg?”

    Commercial or outright Product Placement characterizations have been around since Radio. Watching TV as a kid, I always remember watching a TV show and seeing a credit, “Automobiles provided by the Ford Motor Company.” Mostly they seemed to be CBS shows and I think the original Hawaii Five-O was one of them, and this stretched back into the 50s at least!

    Now I saw both of your mentions about Subway when originally aired. I actually did not catch on that they were commercials and thought the producers liked the product and were riffing on them, so in both cases, they added a humorous aspect to the program. As long as they fit the show properly, they are less distracting than those soda cans or cereal boxes turned expertly flat to the camera and lit like Garbo.

    • Brian Steinberg says:

      Yes, Frank W,. its true, anyone who knows anything about broadcast TV knows advertisers used to be exclusive sponsors – even the owners – of dramas, talk shows, etc. But that practice went away and the only product placement that occurred for a long while was the kind that took place when advertisers donated vehicles,clothes etc for sets. What’s happening these days is more aggressive: advertisers know if they pay enough they can get mentioned by characters and be used in important plot points. That’s vastly different from Kraft Television Theater

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