HOLMES REPORT: The Center for Individual Freedom's 'victory' over Subway is another loss for free speech

No matter how long I write about this business, it never ceases to amaze me that there are a number of people out there who don't have anything resembling a life and who seem intent on making your existence just as miserable as theirs.

No matter how long I write about this business, it never ceases to amaze me that there are a number of people out there who don't have anything resembling a life and who seem intent on making your existence just as miserable as theirs.

That's not to deny the vital role of consumer watchdogs who raise legitimate issues, from environmental to product-safety problems. Had anyone heeded the auto activists who identified problems with Firestone tires and Ford trucks, some of the rollover victims might be alive today and the two corporations might have avoided an epic crisis.

But many of the "issues" raised by activist groups are examples of political correctness run amok. And groups that obsess over the tiniest perceived slur not only create an unnecessary nuisance for their corporate victims, they also feed into a general cynicism that makes it harder for those with legitimate grievances to be taken seriously.

The most recent example involves a group calling itself the Center for Individual Freedom (CIF) - except, apparently the freedom to criticize your competitors in your ad campaigns. The CIF has engaged in a mystifying assault on Subway for what it calls an anti-American ad campaign.

The trouble began when German franchisees of the US-based sandwich chain entered into a deal with the distributor of Super Size Me, a film that tells the story of a documentary filmmaker who gorges on nothing but McDonald's for a month. The deal would appear to make strategic sense for Subway, which positions itself as a healthy alternative to fast-food burgers and fries. The movie was advertised on food trays at Subway and Subway coupons were given away at theaters.

The tray liners featured a cartoon image of an overweight Statue of Liberty, with a burger in one hand and a portion of French fries in the other, under the headline, "Why are Americans so fat?"

That appears to be a legitimate question. Most nutritionists agree that obesity is a serious problem in the US. It's becoming a serious issue in Europe, too. But groups like the CIF believe that discussing that problem in public is anti-American - the same way some African Americans apparently believe black entertainers shouldn't raise issues of personal responsibility outside the black community.

Eventually, even House majority leader Tom DeLay (R-TX) spoke up, suggesting that Subway was perpetuating "every bad stereotype about corporate America." (Observers might argue a more negative stereotype stems from the failure of US corporations to confront such health issues.)

The upshot is that Subway has withdrawn the campaign and apologized to anyone it offended. Another victory for political correctness; another small defeat for free speech.

  • Paul Holmes has spent the past 17 years writing about the PR business for publications including PRWeek, Inside PR, and Reputation Management. He is currently president of The Holmes Group and editor of www.holmesreport.com.

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