Does a $5 Footlong Make You Think of the Olympics?

“Start the new year right at Subway,” says light heavyweight boxer Mike Lee in a recent TV ad for the sandwich chain. The promotion for Subway’s $5 footlong sandwich goes on to show a bearded astronomer—Galileo maybe?—spotting a blimp through a telescope, former Olympic speed skater Apolo Ohno standing in front of a Zamboni, an anonymous snowboarder above a mountaintop half-pipe, a pair of figure skaters, a circus ringmaster brandishing a wand, and then Australian snowboarder Torah Bright standing in a lodge somewhere.

Sitting in front of the TV the other night, at the end of this 30-second mélange, my wife turned to me and asked when the Sochi Olympic Games were starting. In that moment, Subway had succeeded in what advertisers call “ambush” marketing. They created an association with the Olympics without paying millions for the right to call themselves an official sponsor. “This is obviously a deliberate strategic decision that they have made,” says Simon Chadwick, a professor of sports business at Coventry University who tracks ambush marketing. “They are trying to suggest that in some way they have an association with the Olympic Games.” Subway declined to respond to questions about whether any link with the Olympics was intended.

Ambush marketing has a long history with the Olympics. And Subway is not new to the game. During the Vancouver Games in 2010, the chain ran ads showing Michael Phelps swimming across North America to “where the action is this winter.” When that ad incited a complaint from McDonald’s, the “official restaurant” of the Olympic Games, Subway’s Chief Marketing Officer Tony Pace reveled in the extra attention. “My reaction to the fact that McDonald’s is upset? I’m lovin’ it,” he said at an advertising conference that year.

McDonald’s, according to Sports Business Journal, paid close to $200 million for the eight-year, four-Olympics sponsorship deal that includes the Sochi Games. The chain is one of 10 exclusive worldwide sponsors in The Olympic Partner (TOP) program. To safeguard the investments made by sponsors, the International Olympic Committee requires host nations to provide vigorous trademark protections. Russia, like the United Kingdom before it, has passed laws banning unauthorized use of Olympics words and symbols. And the IOC insists that participating teams and athletes do not appear in any ads during a designated “blackout period,” which this year runs from Jan. 30 to Feb. 26.

Subway is a master at working around the rules. The chain’s stable of endorsers includes former Olympians Phelps, Ohno, and gymnast Nastia Liukin, as well as current competitor Bright. Before Phelps and Ohno retired, Subway would deploy them out of season—Phelps in winter and Ohno in summer—to avoid the blackout restrictions. Bright’s recent appearance in the January campaign slips under the wire. The chain’s ads build an association through a combination of familiar faces and generic references such as snow and ice skating. (Plus, a ringmaster. Get it? Rings.) The official trademarks go untouched. “There is no use of imagery. There is no use of words. There is no use of photographic or video footage,” says Chadwick. “So they are not going to be subject to litigation.”

Last fall, Subway started running ads featuring both Phelps and Brazilian soccer legend Pelé, who signed on as a sponsor in the summer. The spots are a two-for-one ambush on this year’s global sporting events: the Sochi Games and the FIFA World Cup in Brazil (also sponsored by McDonald’s). Subway’s strategy saves money. The terms of its deals with celebrity sponsors are not disclosed, but retired athletes come cheaper than official event sponsorships.

The ads themselves are tacky and formulaic, more like regional productions than a national campaign. Compare with the luxuriant sentimentality of this McDonald’s spot for the London Games, which does not mention a single product or price.

Yet the approach fits the product. “You could say it’s a very smart piece of targeting,” says Chadwick. “It’s a $5 sandwich aimed at people who don’t have so much money.”

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