Jared Fogle was once Subway’s greatest success story.
Now, the former pitchman joins the ranks of Lance Armstrong and Tiger Woods as the latest example of a spokesman whose personal life has become a liability for the company he represents.
Fogle, 37, has agreed to plead guilty to charges of distributing and receiving child pornography and engaging in sex acts with minors, his attorney and federal prosecutors said Wednesday. He faces at least five years in prison, and prosecutors have agreed not to request a sentence of more than 12.5 years.
Marketing and management experts said Fogle’s situation highlights the dangers of relying on recognizable personalities to represent a brand. A mascot, like the Charmin bear or the Pillsbury Doughboy, may be less relatable but a safer choice.
“When spokespeople get into trouble, or things come out about them, it’s definitely going to have some spillover to your brand,” said Ira Kalb, assistant professor of clinical marketing at the USC Marshall School of Business. Mascots, he said, “don’t get into trouble.”
Subway’s link to Fogle was tighter than many business-pitchman relationships. For more than a decade, the company heavily relied on Fogle — who lost a significant amount of weight by eating at Subway — correctly guessingthat his regular-guy demeanor and do-it-yourselfdiet plan of cheap fast-food sandwiches would resonate with its customers.
The Milford, Conn., sandwich company is the only major restaurant chain that used the possibility of weight loss as the centerpiece of a long-running ad campaign, said Jonathan Maze, senior financial editor for Nation’s Restaurant News, a food service industry publication.
“Jared is given quite a bit of credit for Subway,” said Maze, who has covered the chain for years. “You don’t keep someone around for that long if it didn’t work. He does play a role, that goes without question.”
Subway quickly put distance between the company and its former spokesman. In July, the company said it and Fogle had “mutually agreed to suspend their relationship” after federal agents seized documents and electronics from his Indiana home.
On Tuesday, as reports surfaced of Fogle’s expected plea deal, Subway tweeted: “We no longer have a relationship with Jared and have no further comment.”
The company’s quick action to address the issue and end the relationship with Fogle was a good way to handle the controversy, said James S. O’Rourke, professor of management at the University of Notre Dame.
“Every one of these spokesmen comes with a liability clause,” he said. “You do your best to manage that.”
But David Johnson, chief executive of public relations and branding agency Strategic Vision, said the statements didn’t go far enough. And by calling Fogle only by his first name, the tweet reinforced how synonymous Subway and its former spokesman still are.
“You want to express some sympathy for the victims, and Subway did not do this,” Johnson said. “Just saying they severed ties with him is not expressing sympathy or remorse.”