Jared Fogle and Bush-Era Diet Culture: Corporate Evangelicals and the Folk-Hero Syndrome
It was no coincidence that Jared Fogle’s phoenix rise came at the moment when fast food exposé documentaries like Super Size Me went viral and the 1990s and early 2000s saw a major American diet culture craze. Nor is it perhaps far fetched to map the rise of diet culture alongside the rise national anxieties during the Afghanistan and Iraq wars. Food culture and other visceral relationships with the world are often embedded in politics in ways not immediately recognizable, but diets and politics share a similar purpose of control of the body’s territories and, at least in the case of fast food diets, a continual desire to appeal to ‘common man’– think Joe the Plummer’s everyday brand of norm-core. The list of Jared Fogle’s Subway stunts is so bizarre and exhaustive it collapses our notion of corporate spokesperson, celebrity, and politician. Jared’s Subway successes, propelled by his being ‘found’ by the company also speaks to the collapsed identities of consumer and corporate mascot to the point where consumers immediately become external manifestations of a company’s clout, and to the emphasis on in-the-flesh encounters by the famous as a way to posit authenticity. These aspects of Jared’s career illustrate common tactics used in the contemporary branding of modern corporate celebrities and suggest that Jared's performance is uniquely that of a Gen-X, post-modern celebrity.
Jared on South Park
In 2002, 25-year old Jared carried the Olympic torch through Indiana on its way to the Salt Lake City Winter Games and was featured in an episode of South Park. In 2004 Jared went on a national tour of military bases to promote healthy choices. In 2006 Jared started The Jared Foundation© to help confront childhood obesity. The next year Jared met with George Bush and spoke in Congress with the Center for Science in the Public Interest. In 2008 he celebrated the 10th anniversary of his Subway “Tour de Pants.” In 2010 he trained for the New York City Marathon with famous fans like Michael Phelps and Carl Edwards after appearing on an SNL skit with Phelps in which he critiqued Phelps’ 12,000-calorie diet. Jared most recently ran in the New York Marathon in November 2010 as part of his health campaign for Subway. Fogle’s career is characterized by a do-si-do of media stunts in which he totes around a pair of size 62in pants that fit him before he went on the Subway diet. The difference between Jared and other public figures that might carry the Olympic torch or give talks in the Whitehouse is that Jared is characterized by his exceptionalism and virtue as a normal American, or rather an American who overcame the American obesity problem, in a particularly American way– through ritual consumption of fast food. Jared’s celebrity is entwined with his claim in being an average American guy– a term which remains in common use although the fact that the perception of an, ‘average experience’ is based on normative models which themselves are often the weapons of exclusion.
Normativity plays into Jared’s marketing strategy as he campaigns, not as a company mogul, but as an embodied representation of the company itself. Subway is performed and enacted by a folk-hero whose authenticity was created in his original endorsement of its ethos while being outside of it. I’m reminded also of new penetrative marketing strategies which pay girls to talk sexily about products at clubs or people who are paid to post and re-blog corporate cartoons on Facebook and Twitter as if they were doing it independently of the company. The key here is for the company to insert itself into everyday life while maintaining a distance from that insertion so that it doesn’t feel contrived.
As for the breadth and variety of Jared’s media appearances, I think of philosopher-architect Paul Virilio’s comments on modern celebrity in his description of the 20th-century airline mogul, engineer, and philanthropist Howard Hughes. Virilio suggests in his book, The Aesthetics of Disappearance, that the accelerated modern global commerce and technological development that embraces totalization and speed (using Hughes’ passenger airplane empire as metaphor), collapses space and time by rendering all relationships constantly in flux, and thus static. Virilio describes Hughes as a transmutating signal rather than a singular node. As such, speed collapses time and space by having the quality of being everywhere and nowhere at once, and the bodies of famous jet-setting icons always maintain this signal quality, being dispersed among media channels. Virilio frames Hughes as the quintessential modern celebrity who strategically uses and capitalizes from the collapse of space and time. Hughes could disappear in the static of his transmission and reappear at different hydra heads in the corporation– a truly ‘fragmented’ post-modern figure.
Illustration by Fontaine Capel
Jared’s meetings with his fans resemble cultic experiences and make the distinctively Christian dimension of American celebrity obvious. He gives encouraging tips on healthy habits and weight loss, but the real pull of one going to his events is his presence, to touch him, to take a selfie. Touch and interaction with the flesh are familiar aspects of modern celebrity– where pictures with fans, handshakes, and baby kisses are practically job requirements. The physical encounters of fans and celebrities mimic the gestural patterns of believers and religious figures where the ‘healing touch’ and hands-on-healing have been a mainstay across denominations for thousands of years. The touch endowed with the power to heal or some other voodoo is also a signifier the figure’s power to transmit his/her message and to be effective.
Even further, if we accept Virilio’s analysis of the geographically diffused, modern celebrity, Jared’s encounters in the flesh seem to confront this reality by establishing his presence and attention to a particular node in the system, and to registering his theophanic ability to transmit healthy eating habits. Jared’s appearance in a Subway locale for a media event elucidates his realness, his physicality in a campaign that is otherwise ruled by Jared’s globality and media diffusion. Subway franchise stores are never the same after Jared makes in-store appearances – “pilgrimages,” according to Subway’s website. These in-store appearances harp on the preciousness of his presence. Its cultic value simultaneously reifies the ubiquity and influence of his image, mostly known as a channel or signal rather than a concrete object.
“The pants” alone have an undeniable aura to them. Fogle recently remarked in a Men’s Health issue that his pants remain in a secure, undisclosed location that he is not allowed to reveal.1 The authenticity of Jared’s experience is reflected in the pants and thus they have become a sacred object both by his fans and by the corporation, which values them to the point of archival preservation and secrecy because of their value as an object rich with an aura. Jared’s pants are held next to the body in a way duplicated on infomercials and weight loss pill bottles. Weight loss pants are a recognized cultural iconography, but still all weight loss pants are not created equal.
Jared’s campaign reps itself on its website in a section titled ‘Inspired Stories’ which collects short quips from overweight and obese persons who were inspired by Jared to achieve their weight loss goals. The promise of inspiration is one of the key aspects of the corporate evangelist– a figure who is characterized by his/her enactment of particular gestures and communicative methods that rely on methods of cultic belief and interaction with the flesh as a sign of the validity of their message. The association with corporate spokespeople and the Christian evangelical tradition has been made countless times. This association is perhaps based on the strategies of communication that corporations use to promote their products as life changing and the stress placed on physical, IRL communication, touch, and physical event-making stunts such as pilgrimages and site visits. The promise of inspiration is key in this tactic, as ‘evangelist’ figures like Jared tell us that if we consume certain products we will have better, more fulfilled lives.
It would be difficult to pinpoint the time when Jared Fogle’s life began to also take on the performance of Jared the Subway Guy. His Wikipedia article was started in November 2003, if that’s any indication.
Jared Fogle was born on December 1, 1977 in Indianapolis, IN, the same year that Kanye West emerged from the womb and Apple Computer was incorporated. His father Norman was a physician in Indianapolis, his mother Adrienne, a teacher. Jared studied Management and international business at Indiana State University right out of high school. He reportedly drank 15 to 20 cans of soda each day and a typical snack was two candy bars and reached 425 pounds, his peak weight in 1997. At that point he had tried all the major weight loss diets with no success and had reverted back to eating several steak sandwiches at the Subway on his block every day. One fateful day, he decided to opt for Subway’s newly introduced low-fat sandwiches and opt out of the condiments on his foot-longs. Soon after he had lost 245 pounds and dropped down to a sleek 180.
The Jared Diet:
Coffee for breakfast. For lunch, a six-inch turkey sub with a small bag of Baked Lay's chips and a Diet Coke. For dinner, a foot-long veggie sub and a Diet Coke. On the sandwiches, no cheese, no mayonnaise, but plenty of lettuce, green peppers, banana peppers and pickles, and a dab of mustard. No snacks, and no cheating!
A write-up on the Jared Diet first appeared in the Indiana State University newspaper. The story was ‘intercepted’ as his fan website notes, by the Subway Corporation and Jared’s first ad ran locally in a Houston franchise. When sales at the store increased dramatically Jared’s story became a national campaign. By the time he graduated from college in 2000, he had signed with Subway for his first major ad campaign. That first year Subway’s sales rose 20 percent, and since then he’s starred in over 300 commercials and never stepped down from his role at the chain.2
Jared’s career epitomizes the branding tactics used heavily by politicians to make themselves appear as the ‘common man’– a key example being the branding of George W. Bush in the 2004 Presidential race. Like Bush’s campaign, Jared’s “All-American” branding valorizes and reifies a normativity defined by marketing experts, but which continues to use the middle class, able bodied white male as the face of normativity. Jared’s ‘fat American’ branding is also important part of his appeal to normativity, perhaps especially because of its appeal to the working class. Jared’s ‘working class’ branding is essential to his claim to authenticity when he was discovered as a college student in the Subways of Indiana– even though Forbes records that Mr. Fogle is worth $15 million these days. As such, the inaccuracy of the ‘working class’ branding of a media figure is that the term continues to be used after that person rises into the upper class. The takeaway here is that corporations strategically propagate and reify myths about what normativity is, make huge efforts to secure their image’s closeness with this contrived norm to portray authenticity, while the changing material and financial landscapes of their mascots makes the immediate authenticity impossible and the normative models flatten and characterize what it means to be American.
Fast Food Nation
In recent years, the whole cycle of the normative American body bearing extra pounds and than shedding them by eating healthy fast food has become a part of corporate branding of American culture. In 1999, Men’s Health magazine included the ‘Subway Sandwich Diet’ in an article called “Stupid Diets…that Work!” This was just the beginning of Jared’s career as a facet of the diet culture sweeping the states in the early 2000s, which included the Atkins Diet, the South Beach Diet, celebrity diets, and more recent versions like the Paleo Diet. By 2011, Subway’s association with diet culture had been consolidated and by 2011 it replaced McDonalds in global presence with 33,749 restaurants worldwide. At the time, National mistrust of fast food companies was at a peak. The documentary culture pervaded this scene with ‘manifesto’ films like Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the American Meal (1999), Followed by Super Size Me (2004) in which Jared made a cameo in a segment about overweight teens and King Corn (2007). At that time too, environmentalist documentaries like Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth (2006) and nature films like Planet Earth (2007) were released at the peak of Bush-hating and which reflect a sentiment of uncertainty about global warming, Bush’s environmental policies, and the downfalls of corporatism on American health.
Super Size Me depicts an environment in the 2000s where diet culture responded to societal concerns about fast food, and the “McDonaldization of America,” a term coined by George Rtizer in his book The McDonaldization of Society (1993). Ritzer argues that McDonalidization occurrs as society relies increasingly on the same demands and organizational components of a fast food restaurant: efficiency, calculability, standardization, and control of labor– it’s an argument strongly indebted to Fordism. His framing of the modern world in the language of the fast-food restaurant speaks to the relationship between anxieties about social and political change and anxieties about fast food culture and weight loss.
Marketing campaigns have used claims to increased health much earlier than the late 1990s, and many U.S. policies have been created specifically to help encourage weight loss in the 20th and 21st centuries.3 But one major way the 2000s diet craze can be identified is that major chains like Mcdonalds and Burger King chose this time to opt for ‘healthy eating ‘options on their menus. It also saw the birth of branded ‘healthy’ chains like Panera Bread and Quiznos. After The McDonaldization of Society became a national concern, it became a topical focus for documentaries and exposes, and fast foods chains themselves responded with new tactics to brand themselves as the good guys.
The outcry at fast food corporations also occurred at the peak of the Bush presidency and the War in Iraq, when confidence in the federal government fell to a low and questions of the military-industrial complex and other corporate corruptions in government were rampant in films like Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11. This recalls an article by Anna Watkins Fisher, “We love this Trainwreck!: Sacrificing Britney to Save America,” which starts out by unpacking the Britney Spears cameo in Moore’s film. Fisher discusses Spears as a ‘token of abject imperialism’ whose career rose and fell temporally around the same time as George Bush’s and also at about the same time as Iraq’s rise and hyper-public political fail.4 Both were global media icons of cultural ‘excess’ and ‘failure’ parodied in various ways that slowed them as examples of destroyed American ethics. National outrage at the U.S.’s excesses as early 2000s were a time when Americans were on the look out to connect corporations to the military-industrial complex, to frame Bush’s presidency as a corruption of all aspects of American life. When he left office, it was obvious America was toxically anxious and out to crucify.
One way anxiety manifests itself in the body is by an increase on self-inflicted bodily control tactics. If you can’t control your president as he turns the nation to shit, perhaps training yourself to be powerful would help? This is the mindset. Contemporaneous blogs, forums, and books have also shown traces signs of an American obsession with White House food culture with these like blogs being devoted to White House recipes, and an ongoing national interest in what presidents are eating.5 There is something not unnatural about the connection between political boons and healthiness and political catastrophe and national anxieties about weight leading to an upsurge in concern over fast food and an upsurge of healthy eating campaigns. Food and eating behavior are consistently at the forefront of our anxieties at a personal and national level.
Fogle believes his ad campaign with Subway has had a positive effect on the foodservice industry’s menu offerings; “I think it’s forced a number of restaurants out there to up their number of healthier options,” he said in an interview. “It’s gotten consumers to say, ‘Hey, there’s no reason I can’t have something that tastes really good and is also good for me.’” His campaigns capitalized on the insecurities of Americans about the healthiness of fast foods at the time and that these insecurities about weight gain and healthy eating can be associated with a wealth of other concerns about American politics and war.
Entering into Americana
Art theorist Boris Groys writes that “archives are machines for transporting the present into the future.” The expansion of corporate archives indicates the corporation’s desire to create nostalgia, figuring themselves into Americana– and integrated into the political and cultural landscapes of place.
In 2008, at the 10-year anniversary of his weight loss, Fogle announced that he would eventually retire the pants to a museum after one final “Tour de Pants.” The pants campaign steaks claims to its place American culture and aesthetics through this museification impulse.
And we can’t hide that chain stores have been a telling aspect of Americana since their birth in the 50s. Commercials and documentaries always start out the same- with a story of a mom and pop operation that grew out of a good business model. But the corporation itself also functions like a museum, in that it has a particular curatorial eye that seeks out people to be part of its brand. The collection impulse strikes when the sovereign notices something on brand that was created by an outside entity. Jared, for example.
Personalizing, pixelating, or photoshopping the brand aids in its distribution and redistribution into networks of human sociality and this participation is now happening by consumers and Facebook groups not even created by corporations. Fandom has progressed from something you do out of devotion to an activity that could get you a job. If you tweet about Subway enough, maybe Subway would hire you too. This all seems to me like some sort of elaborate sketch to get people to associate brand affiliation with job seeking, and corporate endorsements and affiliations on social media sites, in clothing, in endorsements, as good investments. Participants of social media unknowingly transmit brand images when adding a brand image to a meme even if the meme furloughs or even has it out against the brand. This is the unspoken aspect of meme-based corporate appropriation. Even if it is a meme, you are still causing other people’s pupils to linger on the highly constructed corporate image, their brain to be reminded of Subway’s existence and option for you at your next meal.
I return to Howard Hughes and Virilio’s theory on this new type of highly fragmented corporate celebrity that transverses so many medias and physical locations at once as to be in a constant state of flux or as he calls it, disappearance and reappearance. Jared embodies Virilio’s model if we look at the strange variety and constancy of his campaign for the past 16 years, while also maintaining an emphasis on physical connection and ‘aura’ during his media stunts. While it doesn’t make much sense to look for contradictions within a marketing campaign because the list would be too exhaustive, Jared’s liminality as a corporative figure whose clout comes from his branding as an independent of the corporation that just happened to support it tells us quite a bit about the subtle ways corporations try to assert themselves outside of their traditional markets to makes ubiquity seem effortless.
1 Spitznagel, Eric. “The MH Interview: Jared Fogle.” Men’s Health. 04/05/2013.
2 “Subway Pitchman Jared Fogle Rolling Deep in the Dough.” Daily Finance Business Insider. 06/11/13.
3 Schessler-Jandreau, Imke. “Fat America: A Historical Consideration of Diet and Weight Loss in the U.S.” Communication and Public Policy: Proceedings of the 2008 International Colloquium on Communication 21st ICC. 2009.
4 “We love this Trainwreck!: Sacrificing Britney to Save America.” Watkins-Fisher, Anna in; In the limelight and under the microscope: forms and functions of female celebrity. New York: Continuum. 2011.
5 Olver, Lynne. “The Food Timeline–Presidents food favorites.” Food Timeline Library. 1999.