Weight Of The World

Subway’s child-obesity ads could be lighter on their feet

Childhood obesity is epidemic in this country right now—9 million kids are overweight, according to the surgeon general, and they are developing Type 2 diabetes at “unprecedented” rates. Not surprisingly, this has also become a massive problem for advertisers.

Two years ago, a pair of teenage girls famously sued McDonald’s for making them fat and sick; the suit was thrown out, but the publicity added to the clamor about the “toxic environment” that giant food marketers have produced in our culture. (The anti-fast-food frenzy has spawned, among other things, Super Size Me, the let’s-whack-Mickey-D’s documentary that’s as facile and crowd-pleasing as the grub itself.)

Health activists like to compare food marketers to tobacco makers, and a recent Kaiser Family Foundation report inextricably linked television (particularly junk-food spots aimed at kids) to the alarming obesity levels. In response, marketers are scampering to do good. Kraft and Coca-Cola are sponsoring “wellness” programs, and Burger King, McDonald’s and KFC have been zealously healthing up their menus (and, in the case of KFC, withdrawing unsupported health claims).

In this environment, Subway’s new “public awareness” campaign targeted to kids is a first—so groundbreaking that networks didn’t know how to categorize it and didn’t want to run it. Obviously, if any of the fast-food restaurants can claim a legitimate link to weight loss, it is Subway: The food is not fried in trans-fats, and the carb, fat and calorie counts of each sandwich and salad are prominently displayed.

Subway will put 20 percent of its national ad budget—$25-35 million this year—toward its F.R.E.S.H. Steps initiative, “a multi-layered program to empower kids and adults to Feel Responsible, Energized, Satisfied and Happy.” (How’s that for an acronym that just writes itself?)

Speaking of labored, while the strategy and program are admirable, the ads are so weighted down with qualifiers and disclaimers (no doubt demanded by lawyers) that they are twisted into pretzels just to exist. For example, the lines, “Results not typical” and “Subway is not a weight-loss program,” are prominent in each spot.

Which can lead to cognitive dissonance, it seems: If it’s not a weight-loss program, what is the message Subway hopes to convey?

Similarly, I appreciate that pains were taken not to exploit the children (Madison, 10, Isaac, 11, and Cody, 12) whose stories are told here. They aren’t shown eating food, there aren’t any “before-and-after” pictures, and the ads don’t promise that you’ll be more beautiful or popular. They don’t even reveal how much weight each kid lost. Instead, the middle-schoolers are shown romping in natural settings and speaking in their own voices. Madison rolls in the grass and says, “All the other kids wore jeans, but I couldn’t cause they wouldn’t fit. Now I eat healthy and play more. Now I wear jeans all the time.”

Isaac is shown in the pool with his goggles on and says, “I quit eating junk food. Now I swim a lot and I feel great. And I can do anything.” Cody, jumping in the woods and climbing on logs, talks about hiding upstairs when his brothers’ friends came over, worried that they would “call me fat or something.”

These are all inspirational, affecting statements. At the same time, the kids are shown in slow motion—in some cases in black and white, with soaring choral music, like they are being memorialized or are holy beings. What these kids did is terrific and praise-worthy, for sure, but it’s kind of creepy to see them turned into saints. In their extreme attempt to be respectful, the spots are almost morbid. (In Cody’s spot he runs in front of a large, lone tree, and it’s a beautiful shot, but it looks like the logo on Six Feet Under.)

But maybe it’s a reaction to how Jared was treated. Mr. Fogle, who became famous by losing 245 pounds on his self-made Subway diet (two turkey six-inchers a day), became a role model and corporate icon, sure, but as with most celebrity cycles, he also turned into the stuff of late-night comic fodder.

Jared disappeared last year from Fallon’s disastrous “It’s OK. I had Subway” image campaign. But he reappears in each spot here, looking newly trim in a blue shirt and jeans, and seems much more pleasant than in previous gigs that paired him with other actors. He closes all of these kid-targeted spots (also by Fallon, before it parted with the client) by smiling and expressing a heartfelt “We want your children to live long and healthy lives,” while holding up the fat pants. (The fat pants have to go. Sure, they are huge, but that only adds to the dissonance of the non-diet message.) Some of the kids are shown holding up their fat pants as well, which doesn’t work either.

No doubt with all the legal wrangling, humor was out of the question, but a little levity would have worked wonders. (I’m thinking of the Ad Council PSAs with the guy who lost his love handles by taking the stairs.)

As it is, the program will probably be successful. Jared and the WNBA’s Lisa Leslie are embarking on a school tour with a message you can’t argue with—something about eating healthier, moving more and not getting sued.

Subway Restaurants


Fallon, Minneapolis

Executive creative director

David Lubars

Group creative director

David Damman

Art director

Carol Henderson


Christopher Wilson

Agency producer

Kris Wong-Barrie


Jeth Weinrich/Red Motel