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Lo-res_1527479909-SIn South Korea, television broadcast rules do not allow for commercial breaks, so companies trying to get viewers’ attention have to adopt other tactics. Enter product placements. Popular Korean shows are often filled with recognizable products, leveraged to resolve the conflict or signal the cool status of a new character.

None of those products is perhaps as recognizable as Subway, which has taken this initiative and run with it. The sandwich chain’s bright, unmistakable logo pops up nearly everywhere, so much so that it has become something of a cultural joke. One quick review of a recent televised lineup counted its presence in 17 different shows, often in ways that are critical to the plot. For example, one web series is set nearly entirely at a Subway store, where the main character’s crush works, leading her to make daily visits to see him.

Subway has expanded its presence in Korea in other ways too. With 430 restaurant locations in the country, it is easy for viewers to find a local source for the sandwiches. Yet even if the impetus for embracing product placement is specific to Korea and its laws, the outcomes in terms of brand awareness are international. Korean content and K-pop culture are global in their reach, and Netflix streams a wide variety of Korean shows. A newly released drama attracted 22 million viewers within a month of being released on Netflix, highlighting the ways that Subway can reach a global audience through these marketing efforts.

Considering this vast audience, Subway also has leveraged its product placement to prompt viral marketing, such as by introducing new or limited time sandwich flavors by granting them to a television character first. In such settings, the showrunner can define a character as cool and in the know, able to order sandwiches no one else has heard of, even as viewers and consumers get excited at the prospect of sharing a flavor palate with a heartthrob or leading character.

Considering this reach, at an average cost of less than $1 million per show, product placement also is an efficient marketing tactic for Subway. Even if some viewers might joke that they cannot get away from the chain, that means they are aware of it, and that’s an invaluable achievement.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Are there any risks to Subway’s ubiquitous product placement strategy?
  2. Should other brands similarly seek to place their products in Korean entertainment content? For which types of brands is this strategy likely to be effective?

Source: Seth Berkman, “Korean TV’s Unlikely Star: Subway Sandwiches,” The New York Times, March 14, 2021