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Subway Places More Than Just Product in NBC's 'Chuck'

Script Puts Sandwich Front and Center and Includes Chain's '$5 Foot-Long' Tagline

By Published on . 2

NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- A major character on NBC's "Chuck" delivers a Subway sandwich to his boss, then utters the chain's current "$5 foot-long" ad message as part of the script? Why, it's enough to make the casual viewer scream out "Sweet onion teriyaki!" in amazement.

Sweet onion teriyaki!
Sweet onion teriyaki! Credit: NBC
Subway got an aggressive plug Monday night on the light-hearted NBC spy drama when Morgan, best friend of protagonist Chuck Bartowski, delivered a chicken-teriyaki sandwich to Big Mike, the boss at Buy More, the electronics chain where much of the action in "Chuck" takes place. The sandwich came wrapped in paper adorned with Subway's familiar yellow lettering and -- as no doubt intended -- was hard for a viewer to miss.

But that wasn't the end of the scene. Morgan not only touted the deliciousness of the sandwich he had procured but also uttered the phrase "$5 foot-longs," which, as many TV viewers will know, is one of the central premises of Subway's advertising these days. The Doctor's Associates sandwich chain has been working to boost business by selling some of its popular offerings at a value price of five bucks.

'Far beyond just a logo'
The onscreen plug is emblematic of how major marketers want to amp up their cameos in popular shows. While product placement has grown leaps and bounds in the past several years, for many marketers, a guest-starring role in a popular comedy or drama simply isn't enough.

"This is far beyond just a logo placement or a product placement. It's more about the messaging," said Tony Pace, chief marketing officer of the Subway Franchisee Advertising Fund Trust, the consumer-marketing arm of Subway.

Subway's "Chuck" appearance goes beyond the usual trappings of product placement, in which an on-air appearance or even a reference from a character is considered a boffo execution. Getting a character to repeat the company's ad slogan is tantamount to turning "Chuck" for even the briefest of moments into a bona fide Subway commercial.

Marketers "are trying to get more beyond the logo slapping, the passive placements," explained Frank Zazza, CEO and founder of iTVX, a firm that measures the effectiveness of product placements. Advertisers instead want "to get the brand essence woven into the script," he said, and want to evolve their in-program appearances "at a rapid pace." The danger: If the appearance is too jarring or breaks the flow of the program, viewers might get turned off and, subsequently, tune out.

NBC and Warner Bros., which produces "Chuck," were unable to make executives available to comment.

Subway on NBC
Subway increased its ad spending on NBC in 2008, according to TNS Media Intelligence, laying out approximately $34.4 million. In 2007, Subway spent nearly $22 million on NBC advertising.

Subway uses an independent firm to arrange some of its product appearances, Mr. Pace said, and has a deal in place with NBC Universal "that provides access to multiple shows." Subway has appeared on "Chuck" in a past episode, playing an important part at a bachelor party arranged for Chuck's soon-to-be brother-in-law (a character burps after indulging in a Subway offering). The chain has also been featured in NBC's "The Biggest Loser; during one episode a team of contestants was led on a walk to a Subway store and told about its healthy selections, then informed they would have to walk farther to another Subway outlet.

"Subway" is pleased with its appearance in Monday's program, Mr. Pace said, and expects to do more of the same. Amplifying an appearance in a program is taking on more importance, he said. "We're doing this as an ongoing way of making sure we get to the audience. In a world where everyone is fully aware of fragmentation and audience size declining, you've got to make sure your message gets out."

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