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Step aside, Ronald: Jared Fogles the new face of this fast-food nation

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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.

Sisqo, we hardly knew ye. Crabby British lady from "The Weakest Link" -- what was your catchphrase again? These days, celebrity is as ephemeral as a wrinkle on Joan Rivers' brow. But six years after Jared's first commercial aired nationally, in January 2000, his special brand of reduced-calorie charisma remains in high demand.

"I'm on the road around 200 days a year," Jared told me over the phone recently. He was at the Denver airport, en route to Seattle to represent Subway at a Seahawks game. A few days earlier, he'd been in California with Gov. 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, Sen. 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.)

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?'"

Breaking habits

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 around 35 to 40 national commercials over the course of his career, including 10 in 2005. (He also appeared in another two dozen or so regional ads.) Most of these commercials were 30-second spots; some were only half as long.

Add them all up, and you can't help but think of the Warhol clich: Jared's fame literally is built on approximately 15 minutes of exposure.

Of course, Jared's commercials air thousands of times each year, at all hours, across multiple channels. In today's vast TV universe, shows like "Yes, Dear" can run forever without making a single cast member a household name, even in the households of CBS network executives.

click to enlarge Meet Jared. Meet Jareds before picture.
  • Meet Jared. Meet Jareds before picture.

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 500 miles away. But because they get satellite TV, all the kids there knew who I was."

Somewhere in Milford, Conn., 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 exposs like Fast Food Nation and Super Size 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 journal, 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 20-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 literally was on the other side of a wall of Jared's apartment, was part of the problem. It was open till 3 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. About one year and 700 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 magazine 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.

Jared vs. the Doughboy

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.

click to enlarge Meet Jareds size 60 before pants.
  • Meet Jareds size 60 before pants.

When it came to selling hoagies to couch potatoes, though, the former super heavyweight kicked the former karate champion's perfectly toned butt. Fan mail flooded corporate headquarters. "The Oprah Winfrey Show," "Today" and "Good Morning America" super-sized Jared's renown. In the first year that Subway broadcast its Jared commercials, sales rose by 19 percent.

Jared is fairly circumspect about what Subway pays him. A couple of years ago, in a Washington Post article, he 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] stopped 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. He lacks, for example, Ronald McDonald's sartorial daring. He has none of the Pillsbury Doughboy's infectious joie de vivre, or Mr. Whipple's riveting psychosexual turmoil. Unlike Jimmy Dean, there's no music career, however dimly recalled, bolstering his reputation.

What Jared does offer is a dramatic and inspiring personal story, and one with a touch of irony: Not only did he lose 245 pounds in just 11 months, but there were no sit-ups involved, no steamed broccoli or soy-protein smoothies -- just fast food, pure and simple! It's diet porn with a punch line, an urban myth that's actually true.

Sticking to the recipe

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. His is not an Oprah-esque saga involving the loss and gain and re-loss of, cumulatively speaking, hundreds of pounds. He hasn't slapped an ex-con Harley-Davidson salesman in the face at an airport, la Richard Simmons. He's never even changed the style of his glasses.

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."

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.

click to enlarge Jared keeps his figure with a combination of healthy - eating and exercise, with or without Little Leaguers.
  • Jared keeps his figure with a combination of healthy eating and exercise, with or without Little Leaguers.

Those tiny wire-rimmed 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 27, he's youthful, but there's something sort of middle-aged about him, too. He knows how to play to school kids, 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.

Perhaps what's most extraordinary about him is his willingness to remain average. The first rule of accidental fame, after all, is that you must try to exploit and extend your celebrity, however possible.

But 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 Rob Schneider movies or go on a drunken bender with Nicole Richie, he's successfully resisted it. He hasn't remodeled his face, as did Paula Jones, or 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. Year after year, he remains on message, as stalwart as the Nike swoosh or the McDonald's arches, a logo made flesh.

And 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 for customers to keep track of how many calories they were consuming, right down to each slice of cheese. And perhaps the most significant sign of success with this approach was that other fast-food chains began adding healthier choices to their menus.

Less is more

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 15 percent of 6- to 19-year-olds are overweight.

"Obesity is a bigger problem now than it was six years ago," said 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 60 to 70 national and regional commercials he's got under his (size 34) belt still are no match for Dick Wilson, aka 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," said Subway PR 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 97-pound weaklings who were tired of getting sand kicked in their faces.

Now, in the land of super-sized plenty, the audience is 300-pound endomorphs who, instead of longing for pecs the size of Big Macs, would settle for being able to see their feet again. To them, Jared offers regular, 30-second glimmers of hope. Charles Atlas' first ads appeared in 1929; his image is used to sell his system even today. Perhaps, after six years, Jared is just getting started.

Greg Beato is a freelance journalist who has written for Spin magazine, The Washington Post and many other publications, including his Web site, soundbitten.com.

  • Step aside, Ronald: Jared Fogles the new face of this fast-food nation

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