Analysis: Can one of TV's best known pitchmen return to the screen? Millions of dollars invested in advertising are at stake
Subway said Tuesday afternoon that the chain had “mutually agreed” with its famous pitchman to suspend their relationship after Fogle’s home was raided by federal and state authorities. There has been no official word about the reasons behind the raid, which took place in Zionsville, Ind. Fogle recently severed ties with Russell Taylor, an executive who headed his charitable foundation and who was charged with several counts of producing child pornography.
While Subway said Fogle was cooperating with authorities and expected “no actions to be forthcoming,” the sandwich chain must navigate a very tough path. Does it hope Fogle is cleared in the investigation and attempt to resume using him in advertising? Or does it take the irrevocable step of sundering ties with him completely – obliterating the work accomplished by spending millions of dollars over a decade and a half?
Subway’s ties with Fogle go back to 2000. Press reports surfaced in 1999 about an overweight Indiana University student who dropped 245 pounds by relying on a diet that used Subway sandwiches — without cheese or mayo, to be sure. For obvious reasons, the allure of the story was hard to ignore.
Fogle was first used to tout Subway as a healthier alternative to fast-food fare. Over the years, however, he turned up in spots alongside football players like Reggie Bush or delivering a more antagonistic message that took a few swipes at McDonald’s. And even though Subway has used him more sparingly in recent months — it has turned, most memorably, to a message about its “$5 footlongs” — he has continued to serve as a brand ambassador, appearing at local outlets or corporate events.
Part of Fogle’s perennial appeal has been his, well, humanity. Many other advertising spokespersons – anyone (or thing) from Ronald McDonald to Poppin’ Fresh, the Pillsbury Doughboy, are characters conjured up for the feat of selling something to the public. Fogle’s story is real and his weight loss was, at the time, inspiring. Unlike Tony the Tiger or Mrs. Butterworth, however, Fogle’s path through life as he gets older is less certain and not within Subway’s control.
Until today, Fogle had been a good-luck charm for Subway. He appeared in more than 300 commercials for the chain, and rode herd with the company as its sales soared from around $3 billion in 1998 to about $12.3 billion in 2014, according to Nation’s Restaurant News. In 2011, Subway trumped McDonald’s as the world’s largest restaurant chain in terms of units sold.
Fogle was “woven into the fabric of the brand,” Tony Pace, chief marketing officer of the Subway Franchisee Advertising Fund Trust, told the New York Daily News in 2013.
The sandwich chain and the sandwich eater weren’t always joined at the hip. In the mid 2000s, a number of Subway’s ad agencies urged the sandwich emporium, operated by the privately held Doctor’s Associates of Milford, Conn., to drop the pitchman. His message, they suggested, had grown stale. The company stood by him and ad agencies found new ways to use him.
Fogle isn’t the first famous person to come under suspicion in a child-pornography investigation. Who leader Pete Townshend was placed on a sex offenders’ register in England for five years starting in 2003 after admitting he had used a credit card to gain access a website that contained the message “click here for child porn” in 1999. He was later cleared and continues to tour with his storied band.
Fogle would not consider doing advertising for other diet or health concerns, and he told the Wall Street Journal in 2004 that he viewed his pairing with Subway to be “sort of an ongoing thing right now, and hopefully I’m in their ads as long as it’s going. I’m here and I’m enjoying it, and I would say it’s better than having a real job.”
An attorney for Fogle said in a statement that the pitchman “has been cooperating, and continues to cooperate, with law enforcement.” Fogle “has not been detained, arrested or charged with any crime or offense,” said lawyer Ron Elbarger.
Subway will have to monitor the situation. If Fogle is brought up on charges, the ties between the two will likely be sundered. But if Fogle is found to be innocent, the restaurant chain may want to work with him again.
Subway has made a lot of bread with Fogle in its kitchen, and, given the right circumstances, could incorporate him into its marketing recipe at a later date – providing the investigation turns up nothing that would leave consumers with a bad taste in their mouths.
[Updated, 7:50 PM]