Subway’s ‘Humorous’ Promotion is No Laughing Matter for PR Execs

It was the promotion that took a bite out of Subway. The Milford, Conn.-based sandwich chain has taken pains to undo the damage sparked by a tray-liner promotion at its German franchisees featuring an image of an overweight Statue of Liberty with the headline, "Why are Americans so fat?" Ugh, pass the Maalox. The controversy dates back to late July, with the tray-liner promotion tying Subway into Morgan Spurlock's documentary "Super Size Me," which links Subway rival McDonald's to America's obesity epidemic. The tray-liner also featured a favorable quote from documentary filmmaker Michael Moore, who has become conservatives' bete noire, what with the brouhaha about his anti-President Bush film "Fahrenheit 9/11." Complaints about Subway's promotion started to roll in after House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) -- who was notified of the promotion when a Houston Chronicle reporter called to get his reaction-- criticized the promotion as trafficking in American stereotypes. Conservative groups, including the Center for Individual Freedom, piled on, demanding an apology from Subway. On July 29 Subway CEO Fred DeLuca tried to contact Congressman Delay to assuage Delay's concerns but the Congressman was traveling and unavailable for comment. Subway, which has 21,600 restaurants in 74 countries, read the writing on the wall. It called officials in the company's Amsterdam office who had the German franchisees recall the tray-liner promotion (earlier than scheduled) on August 2. Around the same time, Subway PR manager Kevin Kane and his top lieutenants apologized from corporate headquarters on behalf of Subway's German franchisees. Both Delay's office and the Center for Individual Freedom stated they were encouraged by Subway's actions. Kane was quick to release a fact sheet stating that the promotional artwork and text included in the tray liner were prepared by German distributors of "Super Size Me." What's more, the German franchisees did not ask Subway's world headquarters in the U.S. whether it was OK to use the tray liners (nor were they were required to). The promotion was designed to raise awareness about Subway's focus on promoting healthier eating and lifestyles. But it backfired. "If somebody had mentioned [the promotion] to headquarters someone would have said this was not the best idea," Kane said. "We try not to put too many restrictions on the franchises to keep up the entrepreneurial spirit of the brand. But in the future -- and we started working on this prior to what happened in Germany - we'll have regional marketing staffs in place to serve an advisory role to help identify any promotions that could be construed as being insensitive to certain groups." Subway's debacle raises several important questions for PR executives to ponder. These include the role humor plays in marketing materials in a post-9/11 universe (see sidebar below), how seamless (or not) communications are between a company's home office and independent-minded subsidiaries as well as the danger companies face when their PR campaigns turn into political footballs. In addition, the promotion points to the PR perils of an increasingly shrinking globe, when anyone with a modem can make a stink about a product, service or promotion and - depending upon the source -- can play fast and loose with the facts. "Because of the Internet there's no longer a clear delineation between markets," said Ned Barnett, of Las Vegas-based Barnett Marketing Communications (and a member of PR NEWS' Advisory Board). "Everybody working in PR for a multinational needs to realize that's what said to one person is said to everyone." Barnett says there are three lessons to be learned from the Subway incident. Politics is the third rail of any corporate speech; touch it in your communications and it's likely your company will get burned It's all global now; there's no such thing as "discreet" markets anymore If your language offends particular groups - in the case of Subway, bedrock conservatives - they will object. Loudly. Political groups are constantly scouring the globe for incidents that can be used as a vehicle for their messages, not yours. Asked why it was OK for National Geographic to pose the question, "Why are Americans so fat?" on its August 2004 cover, Barnett said there were a few reasons. For one, the NG cover is a tease for a serious discussion about obesity whereas the Subway promotion was "an insult [to Americans] and a mockery of the Statue of Liberty," he said, adding that German "managers should have known that putting Michael Moore in the ad would be a lightning rod." Others said the reaction to the promotion has been blown out of proportion. "This is a gross example of American overreaction," said Alan Hilburg, president-CEO of New York- based Porter Novelli Consulting, who stressed that Americans have been subjected to satire ever since they became, well, Americans. Yet, regardless of the reaction the tray liner caused, he said, Subway's response was still on the clumsy side. Subway "didn't have a contingency plan and didn't anticipate that [the tray liner] could turn into a crisis," he said. "[But] instead of providing a keen response - telling consumers what works for marketing in some countries won't work in the U.S. and that German managers felt this was right for its market - the company was reactive." He added: "To hold the globe up to U.S. standards is lunacy." Moving forward Subway managers will most likely lowball the tray-liner incident, knowing that Americans have very short memories. Hilburg added that Subway should no doubt conduct a "vulnerability audit," but any attempt to put the issue out there again would be counterproductive. "Most people wouldn't know what the company is talking about." Contacts: Ned Barnett, 702.696.1200;; Alan Hilburg, 212.601.8492;; Kevin Kane, 203.877.4281;

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