Long before weight loss was TV game show fodder and yarns about folks shedding 50 pounds became headlines, an obese Indiana University student trimmed down by making Subway sandwiches the staple of his diet.
Subway, in turn, latched on to his story and made him its spokesman. Celebrity sandwich peddlers such as Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps and defensive end-cum-talk show host Michael Strahan have also shilled for Subway in the past 15 years — but Jared Fogle, he was the face. Until Wednesday.
Amid a child pornography scandal that in May ensnared the executive director of Fogle’s Jared Foundation, which combats childhood obesity, state and federal authorities converged on the Subway spokesman’s Zionsville, Indiana, home early Tuesday.
Officers and agents led by Indiana’s Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force raided Fogle’s home where he lives with his wife and two young children. They confiscated computers, media storage devices, DVDs and documents. One law enforcement officer entered the home with a dog capable of sniffing out micro SD cards, typically used to store photos and videos, CNN affiliate WTHR reported.
A ‘mutual’ parting of ways?
Investigators have leveled no public accusations. Subway has said the raid is related to the arrest of someone who worked for Fogle’s foundation. His attorney, Ron Elberger, says his client has been charged with no crime, and he is cooperating with the probe. Those who live near Fogle describe him as a “terrific neighbor” and express shock over the police camped out on his property.
Still, Subway announced Wednesday that the company and Fogle “mutually agreed to suspend their relationship” because of the probe.
“I find that a little hard to believe,” said New York-based brand adviser Dean Crutchfield. “Subway clearly made a decision to separate itself from Fogle and the entire scandal. Ultimately, this is a decision made by Subway. With or without Fogle, it was going to be done. … There has to be a throat to choke.”
Brands rely on trust, and trust rests on reputation. Although there are no charges and the court of public opinion has yet to issue its verdict, Fogle enjoys widespread recognition. With that recognition comes liability, said Crutchfield, who counts BP, McDonald’s, PepsiCo, GE and Target among his former clients.
It was important for Subway make a strong decision quickly, he said, because “brand integrity is compromised through fear” and this scandal — and child pornography investigations in general — involve sensitive issues the public finds scary.
“You’re not entitled to your own facts. The public is,” he said. “Facts are stubborn things. The public and the media own their own facts. (Subway) is taking a position that reflects what the court of public opinion is likely to want to see.”
How the 37-year-old came to be the front man for a restaurant chain that boasts 44,000 locations in 110 countries used to be one of Subway’s favorite stories to tell.
Before Subway scrubbed its website of any connection to Fogle this week, visitors to its website could access a host of pages devoted to his story and his fight against childhood obesity.
To hear the Jewish son of a teacher and doctor tell it through Subway’s corporate facade, it began in 1998 when the 425-pound Indiana University student decided to turn his life around by eating veggie and turkey sandwiches.
“Chairs would bend when I’d sit in them,” Fogle told USA Today in a 2013 profile, in which he detailed his tendency to quaff 15 cans of soda, mostly Mountain Dew, a day and frequent McDonald’s, where he chased double quarter-pounders and super-sized French fries with a pair of apple pies.
It was a condition he’d suffered since third grade when he adopted a strict regimen of video games and junk food, he told the newspaper.
He remained invisible at college and avoided dating and parties because of his weight, choosing instead to hole up in his dorm room eating junk food, according to a New York Daily News profile.
“I knew you were supposed to go on dates and go to parties, but because I was so big, I just took myself out of the equation,” the 6-foot-2 Fogle told the Daily News. “I didn’t want to allow myself to be made fun of.”
It was only when the fat around his neck obstructed his windpipe, exacerbating his sleep apnea and causing him to nod off behind the wheel and steer his car into a ditch that he decided to start living healthy. For him, that meant a diet primarily of Subway sandwiches — sans the cheese and mayo — baked chips and diet soda or water.
**It began with student newspaper
His weight loss — a reported 245 pounds — ultimately drew the attention of his college newspaper, the Indiana Daily Student, which wrote a feature on him in 1999. The narrative made its way into a Men’s Health magazine story headlined, “Stupid diets … that work!”
Despite the title’s condescending tone, Subway took notice and the following year, Fogle was in Los Angeles shooting his first 30-second ad.
Soon, he was globetrotting from Canada to Australia, talking health and hoagies.
His celebrity grew. In 2002, he was asked to serve as grand marshal in the first of several NASCAR races, and he helped ferry the Olympic torch through Indiana ahead of the Salt Lake City Games.
He flipped the coin before the 2003 Fiesta Bowl and began traveling the world visiting troops. In 2006, the same year he started the Jared Foundation, he penned a memoir, “Jared, the Subway Guy: Winning Through Losing: 13 Lessons for Turning Your Life Around.”
Though he insisted in all caps atop the book’s cover that it was “not a diet book,” The Publisher’s Weekly review summarizes its content as an exploration of “the frightening aspects of being at high risk for heart attack at the age of 20 and the frustration of all his previous failed attempts at dieting. He uses his experience as a framework to offer advice on achieving all sorts of personal transformations.”
In addition to rubbing elbows with celebrities, many of them the athletes that joined him on Subway’s payroll, he also met President George W. Bush in 2007 and paid a visit to Capitol Hill where he stood alongside officials from the Center for Science in the Public Interest to lobby for healthier snack options in school. That was the same year he and his first wife of six years divorced.
He remarried in 2010. That was the year some of the pounds he’d shed came creeping back, and Subway made a campaign out of getting him into shape to run the New York Marathon, bringing in celebrities Phelps, hoopster Blake Griffin and NASCAR’s Carl Edwards to help him train. He didn’t set any records, but he finished in just over his goal of five hours, which only added to his celebrity largesse.
More than a spokesman?
By then, he had long outgrown the confines of pitchman. He was arguably a household name, and his notoriety had seeped into popular culture via the lampoons of “South Park” and Jimmy Fallon of “Saturday Night Live.”
This fame helped him become one of the biggest — and most effective — faces in advertising, according to a 2013 study by Technomic’s Consumer Brand Metrics, which monitors 120 eateries’ brands on attributes including image and customer loyalty, according to Advertising Age.
The group’s survey of 78,743 adults, who were asked about the relatability of advertising and whether it made them hungry, determined that Subway, “thanks to everyman Jared Fogle,” had the ads to which people most strongly related. The sandwich chain snared the highest composite score of any restaurant, just edging out Olive Garden.
“While endorsements from celebrities certainly play a role in Subway’s success, advertisements that feature the brand’s real-life spokesman Jared Fogle may also drive its high ratings on relatability and memorability,” the study concluded.
That same year, in commemoration of Fogle’s 15th year wolfing down subs, Subway Chief Marketing Officer Tony Pace made the media rounds, crediting Fogle with as much as one half of the chain’s growth since 1998 (the remainder of the success was generated by $5 footlongs, he said). Pace added that Subway’s homegrown spokesman was “woven into the fabric of the brand.”
Of course, Fogle’s future is unknown, as is the backlash Subway will face, if any, said Crutchfield, the brand adviser.
Subway can certainly survive without Fogle, and the company would be best served tapping one of its athletes or another big star to take the mantle from Fogle, he said.
(Crutchfield chuckled at the suggestion of the bong-toking, two-time DUI arrestee Phelps and pointed to an earlier statement he had made about avoiding spokespersons with “baggage”).
As for Fogle, he’ll be fine, too, if it turns out he had no involvement in the child pornography scandal. Bad news is like what you had for dinner last Wednesday: easy to forget, Crutchfield said.
“If there was no guilt or association of that child porn (scandal) with Fogle, these things are forgotten,” he said. “People’s memories are short term, especially if there is no guilt or association. The public has a short-term memory in terms of catastrophe and chaos.”
So could Fogle bounce back as a celebrity or spokesperson?
Absolutely, Crutchfield said.
“He won’t bounce back to Subway.”