Subway Surpasses McDonald’s: Clever Marketing Eludes Ethical Questions

The Wall Street Journal recently reported that Subway Restaurants has surpassed McDonald’s in the total number of restaurants operated under a single brand-name. The article, written by Julie Jargon, credits Subway’s strategic move of locating its restaurants in non-traditional locations for part of its expansion success. However, I believe that it has been the company’s ability to market itself as a healthy alternative to traditional fast food offerings that has primarily facilitated its growth. While McDonald’s has been a lightning rod for ethical questions about its unhealthy products, Subway has escaped such scrutiny. However, a comparison of the two firm’s key menu items suggests that Subway’s healthy reputation may not be warranted.

As America became more health conscious, Subway successfully modified its image by portraying itself as a fast food chain for waistline watchers. This marketing approach culminated in “The Subway Diet” campaign that featured Jared Fogle, a customer who had lost 245 pounds in less than a year purportedly due to a diet consisting primarily of Subway sandwiches. He ate a six-inch turkey sub plus a bag of chips for lunch each day, and then consumed a foot-long vegetable sub for dinner. As part of Subway’s promotional program, it emphasized its menu that contained seven six-inch sandwiches with under six grams of fat each. The sandwiches on this menu did not did not contain any cheese or sauces, which limited the fat content.

I have eaten at Subway frequently and I cannot remember ever seeing a customer order a sub without cheese or condiments. As well, most customers appear to order sandwiches that are not part of the low-fat menu. Despite straying from the low-fat menu, I think that most of these customers believe that they are consuming a healthier meal than they would receive at McDonald’s or other traditional fast food restaurants. They have simply accepted Subway’s marketing message regarding its healthy product offerings and have failed to examine the calorie and fat content of their most popular subs.

Many of Subway’s six-inch sandwiches contain over 500 calories and have over 20 grams of fat, including in excess of ten grams of saturated fat. Consider the following six-inch subs:

Meatball marinara with cheese: 570 calories; 22 grams of fat; and 9 grams of saturated fat.

Tuna sub with cheese: 530 calories; 30 grams of fat; and six grams of saturated fat.

Spicy Italian with cheese: 520 calories; 28 grams of fat; and eleven grams of saturated fat.

Subway Melt with cheese (one of the lower calorie offerings): 370 calories; 10 grams of fat; and four grams of saturated fat.

Keep in mind that the above menu items do not include any sauces, which most customers order. The addition of the most popular condiments can add an additional hundred calories and ten grams of fat and turn a seemingly healthy sub into a calorie laden lunch. For example, one of Subway’s six-inch sandwiches from its low-fat menu is the turkey breast sub with 290 calories, five grams of fat, and one gram of saturated fat. However, if a customer adds ranch sauce and Monterey Jack cheese, the resulting sandwich contains 440 calories, 19.5 grams of fat, and 5.5 grams of saturated fat.

This makes a McDonald’s cheeseburger, with its 300 calories, 12 grams of fat, and six grams of saturated fat seem like diet food. Other McDonald’s menu items have nutritional profiles that are not much different than the Subway sandwiches with cheese and condiments:

Quarter Pounder with cheese: 510 calories; 26 grams of fat; and 12 grams of saturated fat

McChicken: 360 calories; 16 grams of fat; and 3 grams of saturated fat

10-piece McNuggets: 460 calories; 29 grams of fat; and 5 grams of saturated fat

So a customer who decides to eat a foot-long turkey sub with cheese and ranch dressing believing that he or she is eating a healthy meal is consuming the caloric and fat equivalent of a Quarter Pounder with cheese and a McChicken sandwich.

I am not suggesting that Subway has done anything ethically improper by emphasizing its low-fat menu items. The company clearly states in its advertising that these sandwiches do not include cheese or condiments. It also provides detailed nutritional information regarding all of its subs on its website. What is notable is that Subway’s marketing approach has allowed it to escape the ethical scrutiny that has plagued McDonald’s and other fast food restaurants. By marketing its products to children through its Happy Meal promotions and advertisements, and by sourcing some of its ingredients from factory farms, McDonald’s has received the negative attention of consumer watchdog and animal rights groups that question the company’s moral compass.

It remains to be seen whether or not Subway’s rapid expansion will result in greater examination of its products and business practices, or whether the continued success of its marketing message will allow Subway to maintain its reputation as the healthy fast food.

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