Our kids beg us to take them to Subway. Yeah, that’s right. I’m going to start the post with that sentence. Even though the minute I wrote it (heck, the minute I thought it), I wondered: Is that going to seem creepy? Mentioning kids and Subway in the same sentence? You know, given that Subway’s long-time spokesman, Jared Fogle, appears to be under investigation by the F.B.I. for his connections to child pornography. He’s allegedly been caught on tape saying something to the effect of: “Middle school girls are hot.”
Certainly, child porn is repugnant. And we don’t want our sandwiches, or anything else we hold dear, anywhere near it, which is why Subway has currently suspended its relationship with Fogle. Regardless of whether they sever those ties abruptly or just allow them to fade away, I wager you’ll never see Fogle’s face near a Subway sandwich again. There’s a legal presumption of innocence, as there should be, but you can’t erase the stigma of that association in the public mind.
Here’s why Subway survives this: First, according to the PR experts, it’s taking all the right steps to keep the damage contained, issuing official statements of concern as quickly as possible and acting to put distance between itself and Fogle without actually firing him. (That could make Subway legally liable; after all, there’s little actual evidence to go on at this point.)
Second, while Fogle and Subway obviously owe each other a lot, they’ve always maintained separate identities. The whole success of the initial Jared campaign depended heavily on the presumption that Fogle undertook the Subway diet on his own initiative. Though everyone assumes he’s benefitted, it has always been clear that he’s a real person, and therefore an independent entity. Unlike McDonalds’ new Hamburglar, whose bizarre, scripted behavior is pretty much inexplicable, we presume that Fogle’s off-camera life is entirely his own fault.
Third, there’s a lot to be said for Subway’s position in the market. Though my wife and I may be a bit tired of the dry, flavorless whole-grain bread (Jim Gaffigan describes it as “bread that was just baked in a dirty dishwasher”), Subway does, at least, offer a whole-grain option. Our kids like that they can choose their own toppings (typically, bacon, black olives, and pickles; not exactly the healthiest choices, but you’ve got to start somewhere). Other big chains have tried to become more health-conscious, but of the top fast food chains, only Subway seems to have succeeded. When you’re out there on the interstate, or in a small town miles from civilization, Subway is still the one place you can count on for a substantial serving of vegetables that hasn’t been cooked in pork fat.
Still, their growth has apparently stalled of late, due in part to the end of the Five Dollar Footlong and competition from newer, hipper, and more socially conscious chains (like Chipotle, which is all three). And critics have accused Subway of being slow to respond to the Millennial market and out of touch with trends in general.
This may be so. In any Subway I’ve been in during the past ten years, the overall vibe fails to be as fresh as the green peppers. In a way, maybe the Jared scare is just the jolt they need to make them rethink their identity. If they fail to realize they’re at a crossroads, they risk becoming the 7-Eleven of fresh choices: ubiquitous, universal, and universally depressing, as millions sigh in unison and say, “Um, Subway I guess?”