Sub Conscious

The surprisingly enduring appeal of Subway pitchman Jared Fogle.

Jared has a last name, but like Michelangelo, Madonna, and Saddam, he doesn’t need one. When I say “Jared,” you know I’m not talking about actor Jared Leto or Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jared Diamond. Those guys have their constituencies, but uninym status? There’s only one Jared who can make that claim: Jared the Subway guy, the innovative weight-loss adventurer, who, thanks to his ability to shed pounds while eating nothing but fast food, stands as the most improbably enduring icon this new millennium has produced.

Six years after Jared’s first commercial aired nationally, in January 2000, his special brand of reduced-calorie charisma remains in remarkably high demand. “I’m on the road around two hundred days a year,” Jared told me over the phone recently. He was at Denver International airport, en route to Seattle to represent Subway at a Seahawks game. A few days earlier, he’d been in California with Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, kicking off a campaign against childhood obesity. When he visited Washington, D.C., last April, as part of an American Medical Association lobbying effort on cardiovascular disease, Senator Barack Obama did a double-take in the halls of the Capitol, then called him over. (“He loves Subway’s new toasted subs,” Jared reports.) And at a hotel buffet in Hawaii, Jerry Seinfeld got a little starstruck when he recognized the mythic sandwich pitchman in the omelet line. “This big smile spread across his face, and he said, ‘You’re Jared, right?’”

Such fame generally requires one to star in a few hit movies, or at least an unauthorized sex video with extensive Internet distribution. Lasting fame is even more elusive; like weight loss, it’s harder to maintain than achieve. But Jared has made it look exceedingly easy. He estimates that he’s shot thirty-five to forty national commercials over the course of his career, including ten in 2005. (He also appeared in another two dozen or so regional ads.) Most of these commercials were thirty-second spots; some were only half as long. Add them all up, and you can’t help but think of the Warhol cliché: Jared’s fame is literally built on approximately fifteen minutes of exposure.

Of course, Jared’s commercials air thousands of times each year, at all hours, across multiple channels. In today’s vast television universe, shows like Yes, Dear can run forever without making a single cast member a household name. But unless your TV is a goldfish bowl, you’ve seen Jared holding up his old blue jeans and extolling the virtues of Subway. “We took a trip to the Arctic Circle,” he told me, recalling a journey through Alaska. “This one village we went to, the closest Subway was more than five hundred miles away. But because they get satellite TV, all the kids there knew who I was.”

Somewhere in Milford, Connecticut, where the Subway chain is based, there are men and women who literally get paid to market baloney. (Or, as they might put it, bologna.) In the late 1990s, they were, in the words of Subway co-founder Fred DeLuca, “firmly convinced that consumers were not interested in food that was low-fat.” And, indeed, even after exposés like “Fast Food Nation” and Supersize Me, fast food remains appealing specifically because it’s not low-fat—it’s greasy, salty fare that tastes like artery-clogging indulgence, not deprivation.

But as DeLuca explained in a 2002 interview with QSR, a fast food trade magazine, two things happened that helped Subway change its mind about the marketability of healthy fast food. First, a Houston franchisee started promoting the fact that Subway’s menu included seven sandwiches with fewer than six grams of fat. Then, after that franchise enjoyed a significant jump in sales, Subway incorporated the concept nationally. That’s when Jared, a twenty-year-old student at Indiana University, happened to notice a “seven under six” sign at his local Subway.

At that point, the business major was morbidly obese: 425 pounds and gaining. His knees and shoulders ached under the load of all that weight. There were courses he didn’t take because they were held in classrooms where the seats could not accommodate him. He required two parking spots for his car—unless he could open the driver’s door completely, he couldn’t get out.

Ironically enough, the local Subway, which was literally on the other side of a wall of Jared’s apartment, was part of the problem. It was open till three a.m., and he used to feast there on steak sandwiches with extra cheese. But when he saw the “seven under six” sign, he decided to forsake such treats for healthier choices: a small turkey sandwich (no cheese or mayo) for lunch, and a large veggie sandwich for dinner. One year and seven hundred or so Subway sandwiches later, he’d lost 245 pounds. Subway franchisees in the Chicago area learned about his success via a brief mention in Men’s Health and produced a TV ad for the local market. “The national people never bought into it until they saw that it was interesting to consumers,” DeLuca told QSR.

Indeed, while Jared’s star was rising over Chicago, Subway’s national team was focused on a campaign featuring Billy Blanks, the fitness trainer who masterminded the Tae Bo craze by mixing ballet, boxing, martial arts, and hip-hop. When it came to selling hoagies to couch potatoes, though, the former superheavyweight kicked the former karate champion’s perfectly toned butt. Fan mail flooded corporate headquarters. In the first year that Subway broadcast its Jared commercials, sales rose by nineteen percent.

A couple of years ago, in a Washington Post article, Jared said his earnings would make him a “future millionaire.” All he would tell me with regard to his salary was, “They treat me very well.” No matter how much he’s earning, though, it’s likely that he’s underpaid. Consider that Advertising Age reported in July 2005 that “Subway executives have said when ads featuring [Jared] stop running, sales dropped as much as ten percent,” and that Subway’s revenue for 2004 topped $6 billion. This suggests that Jared is worth as much as $600 million a year to the chain. So it’s no surprise that Subway remains committed to him. What is curious is the public’s enduring interest in the guy.

Let’s face it—in the canon of commercial pitchmen, Jared doesn’t exactly leap out at you. Hell, in the canon of guys hanging out at your local Best Buy, Jared doesn’t exactly leap out at you. What Jared does offer is a dramatic and inspiring personal story, one with a touch of irony, too: Not only did he lose 245 pounds in just eleven months, but there were no sit-ups involved, no steamed broccoli or soy-protein smoothies—just fast food, pure and simple!

But as irresistible as that story may be, it’s a short one, and it’s been going on now for six years. Where’s the sequel? Or even a single plot twist? Jared 2006 is essentially the same as Jared 2000.

Jared himself attributes his enduring popularity to his authenticity. “I’m not an actor,” he said. “People know what I did was real. When I look back and ask why am I still doing this six years later, that’s one of the only reasons I can think of.” But there’s more to it than that. This is the age of reality TV, after all; prime time is infested with real people scratching and clawing their way into our consciousness. They’re as subtle as silent movie stars, spewing their neuroses all over your flat-screen.

Jared, on the other hand, evokes an old-fashioned TV professionalism. He’s calm, informal, never hurried. He’s never had a snappy catchphrase, and thus, people have never tired of his snappy catchphrase. He’s also so demographically limber his parents ought to get some kind of advertising award for concocting him. While he grew up in Indianapolis, he seems at home anywhere there is a mall and a Subway—which is to say, everywhere.

Those tiny wire-rim glasses of his? Definitely blue-state. The fact that he once weighed 425 pounds? You can’t get any more red-state than that. Women like him, but not in a way that makes their boyfriends or husbands jealous. At twenty-seven, he’s youthful, but there’s something sort of middle-aged about him, too. He knows how to play to schoolchildren, politicians, whoever. When he holds up those old size-60 blue jeans—they’re so big, they look like a shower curtain with legs—everyone responds.

But perhaps what’s most extraordinary about him is his willingness to remain average. Jared has not only not gone Hollywood, he hasn’t even gone Planet Hollywood. He lives in an Indianapolis suburb with his wife, Elizabeth. If he’s ever had a desire to pursue a career in movies he’s successfully resisted it. He hasn’t even tried to establish himself as a makeover show host or infomercial fitness equipment guru. He’s simply stuck with what made him famous in the first place: low-key, matter-of-fact commercials for Subway.

Certainly his mission is far from over. Because of the public’s response to Jared and his ads, Subway went from halfheartedly pointing out that some of its sandwiches happened to be low in fat to fervently promoting health as a key part of its identity. It developed additional low-fat sandwiches, and added salads and other health-oriented menu items, such as a line of products for carb-counting customers. It also helped customers to keep track of how many calories they were consuming, right down to each slice of cheese. Perhaps the most significant sign of success with this approach was that other fast-food chains began adding healthier choices to their menus.

Nonetheless, all those salads with dressing on the side have yet to have an impact on the nation’s collective waistline. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about two out of every three adults in the U.S. are overweight or obese. It also estimates that fifteen percent of six- to nineteen-year-olds are overweight. “Obesity is a bigger problem now than it was six years ago,” says Jared. “So I think that keeps my story relevant.” And unlike a lot of celebrities, Jared actually wants to be a role model. “I see how keeping my weight off, and staying on the road and talking to kids, inspires other people,” he said. “When I was at my heaviest, my self-esteem was so low. I never expected to be able to give hope to somebody. It’s such a fantastic feeling.”

In TV years, Jared is a mere toddler compared to other average-guy advertising icons. The six years and sixty to seventy national and regional commercials he’s got under his (size 34) belt are still no match for Dick Wilson, a.k.a. Mr. Whipple, who shot 504 ads for Charmin toilet paper between 1965 and 1989. Dave Thomas, founder of Wendy’s, appeared in more than 800 spots for his hamburger chain. Jared’s life expectancy on TV, however, looks promising. “We expect he’ll be with us for a while,” says Subway public relations specialist, Mack Bridenbaker.

Indeed, Jared is more than a corporate pitchman now, and more than an evangelist for healthier eating. He’s transcended those roles to become a living symbol of change, a vivid reminder that people can radically transform their bodies, and, along with that, their lives. In a way, he’s a contemporary version of Charles Atlas, the entrepreneurial bodybuilder who, via his “dynamic tension” system, promised spectacular transformation. At a time when America was a land of hungry young immigrants eager to bulk up and prove their strength, the target audience was ninety-seven-pound weaklings who were tired of getting sand kicked in their faces. Now, in the land of plenty, the audience is three-hundred-pound endomorphs who would settle for being able to see their feet again. To them, Jared offers regular, thirty-second glimmers of hope. Charles Atlas’ first ads appeared in 1929; his image is still today used to sell his system. Perhaps, after six years, Jared is just getting started.

Greg Beato is a freelance journalist who has written for SPIN and the Washington Post.