Branding Beat - Cut Through the Noise

Subway Sandwiches: The Hero of the Almost Cancelled Show

Like it or not, advertising makes the TV world go ‘round. It doesn’t matter how good a show is, if a network can’t get advertisers to pony up the dough, the show won’t last (R.I.P. Firefly). This is demonstrated in Subway restaurant’s successful product placement with the shows “Chuck” and “Community.” The restaurant chain helped guarantee that these NBC favorites stayed on the air, much to the happiness of their devoted fans.

Having worked at a Subway for 3 years during college, I was pretty sure at the time that the company was the physical embodiment of all that is evil in this world. However, aside from our monthly corporate “compliance” visit, where Subway nitpicked every possible thing we were doing wrong (we once got scolded because our fake plants were hanging 6 inches too low… true story), the majority of my distaste for Subway came from rude and flat-out awful customers.

But there was always one group of customers who were polite and down right enjoyable customers to work with:

“Chuck sent us,” was a recurring phrase that befuddled every employee. Nobody who worked there knew what it meant.

It wasn’t until I was done with college and living in Los Angeles that I started watching the show Chuck. I immediately loved it! Right then I realized that Subway had actually saved Chuck!

After season 2, the show was in limbo, not feeling so hot having just seen two of its network cohorts get the axe. But then something happened that changed the course of history forever: The Rise of the Nerds!

Let’s face it, when nerds get behind something, the world can be shaken upside down. They’ve got a ton of disposable income and a bunch of time to dedicate to their favorite things. They decided Chuck (a show about a computer nerd getting super powers) was one of their favorite things. They flooded NBC and Warner Brothers with emails, petitions, and anything else they could think of to try and save the show.

Enter the Footlong Sub in shining armor! Subway wanted to capitalize on this market and offered the show a large amount of money (undisclosed to Google searches) to integrate Subway ads into the actual show as opposed to just commercials (Buzzword of the day: SYNERGY).

The show wasn’t sly or timid with these advertisements. In fact, they were impressively blatant.

The money Subway offered was enough to get Chuck a third season. And a fourth. And half of a fifth, before the show finally logged off earlier this year. As a thank you, Chuck fans around the country flooded Subway, giving the chain a full return on their investment.


Another show, NBC’s Community, wasn’t cancelled, per se, but was pulled from the network schedule. Disregarding the fact that NBC has issues when it comes to making a functional schedule, this usually does not bode well for a show’s return, and certainly not for a renewal.

Same as Chuck, die-hard fans took to Twitter and the interwebs to voice their outrage. Much to the delight of the TV Nerd Kingdom, Community was brought back to finish their season (a 4th is completely dependent on how a very public feud between creator Dan Harmon and star Chevy Chase plays out).

In the second episode back, I bet you’ll never guess what appeared in the Greendale Community College cafeteria… Think you’ve figured it out? A Subway.

Harmon explained this by basically saying Subway paid a lot of money and told him he could do what he wants.

Unlike Chuck, Harmon worked Subway into the actual storyline, not just stopping the show dead in its tracks for an ad within the show.

It’s no doubt that the money Subway gave was a big reason Community was brought back. It gives NBC all the benefits of keeping a show on, with less financial risk.

Only time will tell how long Subway will be integrated into Greendale. It may be for a small arc, or for the remainder of the series.

We’re accustomed to product placement. It’s becoming as American as apple pie or a footlong steak and cheese with double-extra “light” mayo with a super-sized Diet Coke. Subway has simply taken it to an innovative new level. With another successful campaign of this nature, we might end up seeing a slew of advertising integration into our favorite TV shows.

That’s certainly going to get annoying, but since Subway has helped two of my favorite shows, I’ll allow it for now.

How do you feel about product placement and advertising integration? Were you also pleased that Subway stepped in to save Community and Chuck?


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  1. Mandy Kilinskis

    I am so glad that Subway came in to save Chuck and Community. And I am more than willing to sit through blatant (though hilarious and well-done) advertisements of subs if it means my favorite shows can exist.

    Kudos to Subway for letting the show’s creators do whatever they want with them. Community’s integration with the man “Subway” was brilliant. Just brilliant.

    • Alex Brodsky

      I know! I was tempted to go into the whole political meaning behind that story, but I figured that was WAY too hot-button a topic for my usual blogs.

  2. Bret Bonnet

    What’s SubWay?

    • Alex Brodsky

      Subway is an eating establishment founded in 1842 by Arthur Subway the Third in Oxford, England. When it initially opened, bull testicle was the main dish served. Peasants lined the streets, and would pay upwards of 3.16 pounds (5 American Dollars) for a plate containing just 1 testicle. This was far more money back in the day than it is now.

      After the Great Bull Testicle Shortage of 1912, Subway was forced to change its brand. It first attempted fried chicken, flirted briefly with fish & chips, and even had a short lived attempt at being an automobile service station.

      During World War II, Alfred’s son Smith came up with an idea that would revolutionize the restaurant world forever.

      Based off the German U-Boat, he came up for the idea of the Submarine Sandwich, in which he put various meats on top of a toy model of a submarine. It didn’t do well.

      Tipping bankruptcy, he was two days away from shutting his doors for good when a young lass named Misty entered his store. Her hair shining golden, she woo’d him into submission and they rode off into the sunset together to live happily ever after.

      Now Subway makes sandwiches or something.

      • Bret Bonnet


  3. Jaimie Smith

    Those advertisements are def blatant. Watching the video I thought i was actually watching a commercial, I cant beleive that was an actual show. But whatever works to keep their showing I guess is all that matters to them.

    Cool Post, Alex! 🙂

    And btw, the whole getting scolded for a fake plant hanging too low….WOW! pretty rediculous!!

    • Alex Brodsky

      It was ridiculous! However, when a boss walked in on us playing a game of Monopoly in the back instead of working, not a word was said about it… go figure.

  4. Eric

    Honestly, so long as it isn’t sandwiched inbetween otherwise unrelated dialogue, I’ve never really minded product placement. Fake products rank right up there in my book with phone numbers beginning with “555.” You want a grounded and believable setting, well, the props have to be props folks wound find in their own daily lives.

    For some strange reason I’ve always associated Subway with that cheesy ad Happy Gilmore did in order to raise money for his Grandmother. If Subway can help Grandma Gilmore, or in this case, NBC’s Community, I’m all for it.

    • Alex Brodsky

      Hawaii 5-0 (the newer, crappier one) apparently had just a horribly, offensively bad plug for Subway in an episode. One where it wasn’t even humorous or done cleverly like Chuck. They just dropped everything and started talking about Subway.

      I haven’t seen it, cause I’m not a fan of crappy television (Exception: One Tree Hill) but in my research for the blog, the clip kept coming up.

      The Price is Wrong, B!…

    • Russ

      “so long as it isn’t sandwiched”…I see what you did there.

  5. Jen

    I’m very appreciative of Subway. Not only do they provide tasty deli sandwiches, but they saved one of my favorite shows, Community (for at least half of a season). I cannot thank them enough. Nice post Alex!

    • Alex Brodsky

      I think it’ll be around for a 4th season. I just don’t think Chevy Chase will be. (Not a huge loss, in my opinion)

  6. Rachel

    I don’t really watch Chuck, but the Subway episode of Community was truly hilarious — an absolutely excellent use of product placement, in my opinion. If that’s what it takes to save Community, then that’s fine with me! 🙂 Thanks for great post, Alex!

  7. Cybernetic SAM

    Not a fan of product placement it always throws me off the momentum of what I am watching. I understand if the company did something positive to help, but I can’t help but grit my teeth when I see it. Other than types of alcohol mentioned I would lose my mind if product placement started happening in the music I listen to, and you know that is eventually going to happen. Next thing you know classic songs will be one in the same “knock, knock, knockin’ on Subway’s Door” -Bob Dylan or “Ain’t no sunshine when my Mcdonalds is gone…” -Bill Withers, just a few examples of what we can expect in the future.

    • Alex Brodsky

      It’s already been there in music. It’s time for the “Name That Tune” Round:

      “In L.A. we wearin Chucks not Ballies (that’s right)”

  8. Jeff Porretto

    I think the blatant product placement (in these instances) is funny. It’s very “meta.” Everyone knows this company is helping them stay on the air, so screw it! Lets crank it up to 11!

    • Alex Brodsky

      I concur. If you’re gonna do it, ADMIT IT. Take it to the extreme. That’s what comedy is: normal stuff taken to its furthest extent.

  9. Amy Swanson

    Subway’s plan worked for me, I enjoy them a little bit more because of saving ‘Community’ for a few more episodes 🙂 While they aren’t my favorite sandwich chain, I will always choose them over Quizno’s, who I think is their number one competitor besides Jimmy Johns.

    Great post, Alex! It’s interesting to see Subway doing this for struggling shows, wonder if they’re worried about being associated with it or if they’re just glad for more business?

    • Alex Brodsky

      I feel like they’re just happy for more business. It’s all about the Benjamins.


  10. Lindsay

    Kind of random, but the girl who started the Chuck campaign on the TWOP forums (verified and identified by the news media at the time) was a bridesmaid at a wedding I attended a few years ago. She was overwhelmed by the response since, as she tells it, it was just something that came to her while she was drying her hair one morning. She figured it would be a small way for fans to show their support on the night of the finale and never expected it to take on such a life of its own.

  11. Mike C

    Chuck was not “a show about a computer nerd getting super powers”. It was a show about a nerd becoming a spy with many enhanced talents. I would not describe them as “super powers”, as they were just amped-up realistic talents. Although the method to give him these talents (by the “intersect”) was somewhat unrealistic (but still very believable if you know anything about the human phyche), the talents themselves were not unrealistic “super powers” like flying or x-ray vision or super strength. The show has nothing to do with the “Super Hero” genre. He doesn’t wear a costume or change colors or mutate. So that statement can be very misleading. Obviously you haven’t really watched the show if you think it’s about a nerd with super powers.

  12. ChibiHoshi

    I never found the Subway product placement in Chuck jarring or blatant or got me out of the story at all because in the pilot Chuck and Morgan (the bearded dude in the clip) had spent 4 hours discussing best sandwiches on a desert island. Later in the series, Chuck dated a girl who worked at a deli and even had a sandwich named after him. So even before Subway became a part of the story, sandwiches already had their place.

    And it wasn’t just a plot. If I buy a Subway, my daughter wants to put in a Chuck DVD, or if she wants to watch an episode she asks to buy a Sub before hand. It became a ritual.

  13. Don

    If it’s done right I’m all for it. Never watched Chuck, but in the case of Community it was integrated perfectly with Shirley wanting to open her own sandwich shop. The competing business really could have been anything. Even shoving the product placement down our throats was done in a clever and obvious fashion. Ironically, it can also offer a sense of familiarity and realism to a movie or show. Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle might fall into that category. Would we have been so invested had we not known exactly what they were after? A made up burger joint? I think not.

    Another good example would be the original script for Gremlins that included several scenes at a McDonald’s (instead of the bar) in which the payoff was the gremlins taking over and eating patrons. I’ll let other sort out the obvious deeper meaning there…

  14. Emily

    What has revived this thread? Chuck was probably the last show we watched as a family – all of us piling into the living room together to watch an episode – and it became a ritual Subway night: the only time in my life I ever did weekly take-out. The blatant product placement absolutely worked, but that was part of the fun.

  15. Joshn

    Bad decision of Subway. Most people love Chuck show.

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