For years, Quiznos has wooed us into eating its toasted subs through wacky entertainment instead of boring sales pitches. We laughed when the fat lady got hit with the tranquilizer dart, looked on with civic pride when a fellow Denverite starred in a Super Bowl commercial -- sans pants -- gasped at the man-on-wolf action, looked around for anyone who understood the creepy singing spongmonkeys (though we secretly loved them), and cooed at that cute talking baby. It was fun and strange and just a little bit wrong.
But the party has ended. The halcyon days are over. Quiznos is going straitlaced with its advertising, sticking to the message that its sandwiches are big, meaty and delicious and will fill you up -- unlike, say, an unnamed rival. The ads even show a generic sub shop microwaving sandwiches and dumping out packaged meat.
Let's take a mourning look at what's been lost.
In 2001, Cliff Freeman and Partners in New York gave us our first taste of the Quiznos sense of humor. The agency offered up a mocking twist on taste-test commercials, imitating how those "other" brands conducted market research. A consumer was put in a room with a delicious Quiznos sub on one plate and a pile of money on another. He went for the money. The next commercial featured a woman being presented with a Quiznos sub on one plate and a less attractive sub on another. When she started to go for the Quiznos sandwich, a tranquilizer dart hit her in the neck. What did it mean? Who knows? But it made people talk.
For its 2003 Super Bowl spot, Quiznos introduced Chef Jimmy -- Quiznos founder Jimmy Lambatos -- who wasn't wearing pants. He was too busy perfecting his sandwich to remember such a little detail.
Later that year came Cliff Freeman's most outrageous creation for the company. The ad shows a man ridiculing his friend for buying a sandwich from somewhere other than Quiznos. "What, were you raised by wolves?" he asks. Cut to a flashback of the friend suckling off his wolf "mom" as a grown man, in a suit. Odd, but certainly memorable.
The spongmonkeys of 2004 continued that theme. Little flying furry beasts -- who resembled rats a little more than restaurant spokescreatures should -- wore funny hats and sang: "We love the subs! Cuz they are good to us. The Quiznos subs. They are tasty, they are crunchy, they are warm because they toast them. They got a pepper bar!"
The Martin Agency in Richmond, Virginia, is responsible for bringing the catchy little monsters to light. Spongmonkeys were just an obscure Internet phenomenon created in Britain by Joel Veitch, but they became Quiznos spokesrats after a Martin agent received an e-mail clip of them from a friend. "We have done a fair amount of work that has crept into pop culture, and the spongmonkeys was certainly one of them," says agency spokesman Dean Jarrett. You might recognize some of their other work: the UPS "What Can Brown Do for You" campaign, and the Geico cavemen, who are getting their own sitcom.
The spongmonkey spots worked on Seth Stevenson, who writes the ad report card for Slate.com. "Quiznos was not a huge brand, and everyone was familiar with Quiznos after that because it got so much attention," he says. "I just thought it was hilarious and funny and clever and not something you see on TV all the time."
After a year of hearing them sing, the spongmonkeys were replaced with Baby Bob, the cute kid with a middle-aged, blue-collar voice. The poor little guy -- whose mouth moved awful convincingly -- just wanted a sandwich, but he didn't have the molars to handle one of those big, meaty subs.
Rob Siltanen of L.A.'s Siltanen and Partners originally created Baby Bob for an Internet company, then got him his own sitcom, The Baby Bob Show, for two seasons on CBS, in 2002 and 2003. After initially high ratings, the numbers plummeted and Baby Bob came off the air. "It was not a good show," Siltanen admits.
But then the company won Quiznos as a client, and Baby Bob found a new on-air career. Nine different versions were shot, using three different babies to play Bob. "When you put the voice to them, you can't really tell the difference," Siltanen says. "Nobody even knew we changed the baby."
According to data from IAG Research and Advertising Age, the spots worked: In 2005, Quiznos ranked in the top ten for commercial recall for American brands. We could not get that baby out of our heads.
As a result, Siltanen was disappointed when Quiznos decide to go with a bigger ad firm, Ogilvy and Mather in Chicago, after just one year with Baby Bob. "He could come back," Siltanen says of Baby Bob. "He's sitting in retirement right now, but he's still figuring out what he's going to do next. I have a couple of different ideas, including talking to Quiznos about what they could do with him. We'll see."
Kate MacArthur, who writes about Quiznos for Advertising Age, thinks that the company's "little guy strategy" is over. "They're certainly spending far more on advertising than they used to," she says. "They have more awareness, and now they have to take a little more broad-based strategy. It's not just about getting attention. Some of those older campaigns were very polarizing.
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"Certainly the spongmonkeys had very high awareness and appeal to a narrow group of younger consumers, but then Quiznos realized that wasn't the customer base that was actually buying the sandwiches," she adds. "It was an older target that found those characters rather offensive. People saw them as rats. That's not the kind of thing you want associated with food. Even Baby Bob was sunny and cute in some ways and creepy in others."
Ogilvy and Mather is responsible for the new image, and MacArthur says these "wrong way" ads are the best yet because they directly address Subway, which competitors have long criticized for the quality of its meat. "This is the most direct attack I've seen," MacArthur says. "It absolutely hits on the concern of anybody who is buying that kind of meat and wondering about the quality."
Sherri Daye Scott, editor of QSR Magazine agrees that the ads are working. Already, she says, people are comparing the upstart 5,000-store Quiznos chain to the mammoth 25,000-store Subway, which cornered the market on healthy with the "Jared" commercials. With the new campaign, Quiznos is establishing itself as a purveyor of taste and value. A large prime rib sandwich costs as much as $10 at some Quiznos stores, but it's massive, with double the meat of most chain sub sandwiches. "They're more effective at focusing on the food and directly taking on competitors," Scott says.
'Cuz those Quiznos subs are tasty, crunchy and warm. And they've got a pepper bar!