The Cult of Jared

Note: From 2002, this is one of my earliest published essays surviving on the web. I’m reprinting it here, due its timeliness.


How does a 22-year-old kid become a superstar in America if he’s not in a goofy all-boy band or a Hollywood summer blockbuster? Well, he loses weight. Lots of it. And he does it eating at Subway.

That’s the story of Jared Fogle, the young man who’s once-ubiquitous face has suddenly dropped from TV screens, perhaps only coincidentally in the wake of this year’s spate of Superbowl commercials. Jared rocketed to stardom after he dropped from 425 pounds to 190 on a strict diet of Subway sandwiches. He lost 245 pounds in less than a year. Then he appeared on Oprah, the Today show, every dog-and-pony radio show around the country, and of course in those omnipresent Subway ads. Then, to ensure that we didn’t reach Jared-saturation point too quickly, Subway began running “Friends of Jared” ads, within which we learned about others who successfully lost weight while eating at Subway. In these ads, we saw Jared waving shyly at his “friends” like a benevolent pastor. Most of these “friends,” no doubt, he met for the first time the day the commercials were shot.

With his polite glasses, sweet smile and conservative attire, Jared Fogle couldn’t look like a nicer, more all-American kid. His face is open; he seems friendly, sincere. Even his posture is touchingly awkward. He’s the kind of guy who wins Mom’s approval on her daughter’s first date. These unquestionably genuine traits, coupled with Jared’s phenomenal feat of weight loss helped Subway sell a helluva lot of sandwiches.

If you research his diet, you’ll find that Jared lost weight by reducing his calorie intake from about 3000 calories a day to about 1000. Those calories happened to be delivered in sub sandwiches. After he lost 100 pounds, Jared says he stopped hiding in his dorm room and determined to start walking everywhere he needed to go. Diminished calorie intake. Exercise. Folks, it ain’t no miracle of Subway that Jared lost weight: he reduced his calorie intake by two-thirds. He could’ve lost weight by eating the right amount of anything. He could’ve started the M&M diet. So Subway didn’t succeed in helping Jared lose weight; it just succeeded in making him a celebrity. Even so, Subway’s site quotes Jared as saying, “Subway helped save my life over and over. I can’t ever repay that.”

I figured when I went to the Subway site, I’d find some info on Jared; actually I found a whole section of the site devoted to him. We have Jared’s Stats, Friends of Jared, Jared Press Releases, and Jared’s Dietary and Menu Information, but this warning also appears prominently on every Jared page:

*Individuals lost weight by exercising and eating a balanced, reduced-calorie diet that included SUBWAY® sandwiches with 6 grams of fat or less. Their results are not typical. Your loss if any will vary. SUBWAY® Restaurants’ does not endorse the diet Jared created and cautions anyone embarking on a weight-loss plan to consult their physician.”

In other words, Subway wants ensure that while you’re spending more money at Subway, you do understand that you may not actually be dieting healthily.

It’s a delicate balance that Subway maintains between selling subs and actually not endorsing Jared’s diet — and it is “Jared’s diet,” never “the Subway diet” — but Subway is clearly having its cake and eating it, too. Subway spokesperson Michele Klotzer was quoted by the Associated Press as saying, “We’re very proud of Jared’s accomplishment, and we’re pleased that our low-fat sandwiches could fit into his meal plan, but it’s not a diet that we endorse by any means.”

Similarly, in a press release, Subway’s corporate dietician Lanette Roulier hammered home the fact that her company doesn’t endorse Jared’s diet:

“It’s great that it worked for him,” Roulier said, “but I would rather he had eaten a balanced breakfast and more fruits and vegetables.”

Eh? Subway would rather Jared ate more broccoli than subs? To me, these comments seem ripe with a form of chutzpah akin to that which the tobacco companies flaunt every time they sponsor an anti-smoking cigarette. “Eat our subs and you might lose weight, but be careful because this ain’t a legitimate diet and we don’t want to be held responsible if it proves unhealthy for you” — that seems to be a rather mixed message they’re sending.

In December of 2001, Entrepreneur Magazine named Subway the number one franchise opportunity for 2002. To its credit, Subway was the first franchise to win this award four years in a row, an achievement the company later repeated. In fact, Subway has won the award for 10 of the past 14 years. However, few would argue that Jared hasn’t contributed to Subway’s clinching that title yet again.

Let’s face it: Jared’s popularity was as much a commentary on American society as on Subway, though the alacrity with which Subway has capitalized on Jared’s feat — Jared’s feat, not Subway’s — certainly deserves some scrutiny.

Jared rose to fame because his diet stimulated a tremendous psychological mechanism, one rooted deep in the American psyche. That mechanism involves a fear of gaining weight and a gut-wrenching, sometimes debilitating desire to do something about it.

Certainly, the Subway ads must have struck a chord for those sharing Jared’s problem with obesity. It’s a fact hardly worth debating that Americans are on average too fat. I spent nine months in Korea, a country whose people eat a lot less fried food and sweets than we do. Sitting in the Portland airport, moments after my return to the United States, one of the first things I noticed was how many more alarmingly obese people there were in America.

America is home not only to the most obese people in the world; however, it’s also home to the fittest, and those ads must also have influenced hordes of other Americans suffering, not from excessive weight, but from the unforgiving body culture rampant in the United States. Unlike the obese, these people suffer through every day, worrying about that scintilla of flab on a body that’s otherwise healthy or in some, sadder cases, practically emaciated. Insert your own tirade here about all the unreasonably thin stars appearing in magazines, movies and TV shows. In America, thin isn’t just in, it’s all. So, there’s the unfortunate dichotomy: millions of Americans desperately need to lose weight and millions more desperately need to stop worrying about losing weight. Big Business profits from both groups.

Jared Fogle rose to fame for the same reason that every new diet book tops the bestseller list — for the same reason that dieting is the favorite subject of TV talk shows, soft television news, and nearly every major women’s magazine. Jared offered yet another new way for people to lose weight. At least that’s what we were led to believe. But in 2002, though we have more diet books than ever, we also have more unhealthy people, and we have more healthy people agonizing over their weight problems.

Does a diet book ever come out that truly offers us anything new at all? The principles for successfully losing weight remain the same, but they’re not the quick fix some of us desire. Jared’s diet isn’t revolutionary: he simply reduced his calorie intake and started exercising. And to be brutally objective, his success was due as much to his native strength of will as his diet. He was lucky to have that willpower, not lucky to have stumbled into Subway. Still, with Jared’s innocent assistance, Subway cashed in on one of America’s greatest fears, the fear of being fat.

Restaurants, marketing agencies, magazines and publishing houses nurture this fear even as they feed upon it: People worry about their weight and the market responds to their fears by churning out endless and often costly advice. Surely, some of us must know that with the purchase of every diet book comes a free helping of hopelessness. We must know that what really we lack is not the right diet book, but the right eating habits, the right amount of determination or, most frustratingly, the “right” genes. Strategists for the aforementioned businesses understand these dynamics too, even as they tap into the stimulus-response mechanism I’ve just described. Can we argue then, at some level, that corporate America’s eagerness to benefit from this mechanism is an exercise in inhumanity? I think so.

***

In researching this piece, I came across message board threads that mock Jared. “I am getting heartily sick of that jackass,” one poster wrote in alt.startrek.vs.starwars of all places. Well, he may have become a bit of a corporate whore for Subway, but Jared isn’t deserving of our contempt. Unlike those individuals of essentially normal weight who feel prompted by society to agonize over an extra pound, Jared had a dire health problem. In resolving that problem, he accomplished something few people will do in their lives: he lost a tremendous amount of weight. And so far, as we were constantly reminded, he’s kept it off.

For that, Jared deserves our respect. He deserves our admiration for his tenacity, for his willpower, for losing 245 pounds, and for transforming himself into a healthier, apparently happier person.

Nonetheless, Jared’s enormous popularity — the success of the Subway campaign — tells us a lot about American culture: We’re gravely concerned with being or becoming overweight. We’re incapable of doing much about it. We’re more than slightly awed by those who can do something about it. Subway turned that awe into big bucks.

Just remember, Subway, it’s “Jared’s Diet.”

***

@stribs

This essay was originally published by the good folks on Open Sewer, then later on Zmag.com without my knowledge or permission at the time.

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