The TV industry is traditionally unforgiving when it comes to cancellation. After all, shows are extremely expensive to make, and money is the point at the production level: when a fan-favorite lands on the chopping block, no amount of pleading from the passionate audience can make up for a lack of profitability.
Today, Netflix and other streaming services have got into the habit of stepping in at the eleventh hour to rescue cancelled shows, but there’s another brand that started using product placement to save cult hits almost a decade ago: Subway.
So what happened, exactly, and how did it all transpire? Let’s take a look.
Save Chuck: fan pressure pays off
Back in 2009, the NBC show Chuck (featuring the antics of a nerd-turned-spy) had concluded its second season, and its enthusiastic fans were concerned about the prospect of cancellation. The ratings weren’t great, and they had good reason to think that a third season wouldn’t arrive, so they decided to take action by launching a “Save Chuck” campaign.
But what would it involve? Well, Subway was one of the show’s biggest advertisers, and had recently paid for some prominent product placement, so it seemed as good a prospective savior as any. The fans started petitioning Subway to save the day somehow — they contacted the company repeatedly, donated to charity, and encouraged people to buy Subway sandwiches on an arranged date to send a message. The show’s star Zachary Levi even got involved.
To its great credit, while it didn’t create this groundswell of support, Subway really made the most of the opportunity. NBC caved to fan demand and greenlit a third season of Chuck, and Subway began to invest even more heavily in the production of the show (which ended up lasting for 5 seasons in total).
Getting increasingly blatant
Subtlety is often thought to be a strength for product placement — being careful not to be too bold for fear of standing out and making it obvious what you’re doing — but Subway took things in the other direction as Chuck progressed. The mentions got more blatant. Characters spent not-insignificant amounts of time discussing their love for Subway sandwiches.
There was even an episode named partially in tribute to Subway (though containing only the transport method). Because the show’s dedicated fans knew Subway’s role in keeping it going, they didn’t resent the product placement: in fact, they welcomed it. And the increasing level of attachment set the scene for what would happen several years later with another show…
Community: blank-check creativity
In 2012, another NBC show was in a tough spot. Community was critically-acclaimed from the start, but its ratings steadily slipped away, and soon enough it was considered (like Chuck had been) a “bubble” show (could be cut, could be saved). But this time Subway was ready to pounce — it didn’t even need a dedicated fan campaign to give it direction.
As you can watch above, creator Dan Harmon turned down Subway’s initial efforts to arrange a promotional deal… but then it offered to provide the money and allow total creative freedom. The writing staff could come up with any way they liked to fit Subway into the fabric of the show (provided it wasn’t negative, presumably).
Consider that Tony Pace, chief marketing officer of the Subway Franchisees Advertising Fund Trust, has since said “The classic product placement model is not where we are. Just having our logo is nice, but it’s not enough. We’d rather have some message communicated.”
What happened after that was entirely in keeping with the style of Community: Subway was inserted into the fictional campus setting of the show, and several episodes featured a character who had changed his name to Subway to better shill sandwiches throughout the College. Once again, viewers had the context of knowing how Subway was supporting the show, so it came across as self-effacing and nakedly promotional.
The pros and cons of this approach
Not everyone loves this kind of product placement, as you might expect. Some detest any overt marketing, regardless of the context — and while these particular shows were pushed along by hyper-aware fans, that isn’t the case for all shows. There will no doubt be many people who see shows stopping for in-narrative Subway commercials and get annoyed as a result. If not handled extremely delicately, shameless product placement can (and does) go wrong.
That said, there’s an obvious comparison these days with influencer marketing. Brands like to work with micro-influencers over macro-influencers because their audiences are more engaged, more passionate, and more forgiving of promotions. You wouldn’t want to be so obvious with macro-influencers, but if the situation is right, why not be heavy-handed? You don’t win points for being evasive.
Looking back, Subway’s move into this kind of product placement had a significant effect on the company’s brand. While its competitors were dancing around the issue, it was taking the direct approach and being unashamed about it. In saving two cult TV shows, it also breathed fresh life into its popular perception — seems like a success to me.
This is a guest post written by Patrick Foster, Ecommerce Consultant at Ecomm-Tips