In an episode of the Korean television show “The K2,” which takes place in a world of fugitives and bodyguards, a man is being treated with a defibrillator when he enters into a dream state. On the fringe of death, he recalls taking a past love to a Subway restaurant and to a park for a picnic, where he gently feeds her a sandwich and soft drink with the Subway logo facing the camera.
The detail is not a narrative quirk. It is a result of South Korea’s broadcasting regulations and the aggressive use of product placement in the country’s shows by Subway, the American sandwich chain famous for its $5 foot-longs.
“People joke, ‘If I had a drink every time Subway popped up, I’d be drunk before the first half is over,’” said Jae-Ha Kim, a journalist in Chicago who reviews Korean dramas. “Everyone here’s like, ‘I never got a Subway sandwich that looked that good, with that much meat.’”
“人们开玩笑说，‘如果每次出现一家赛百味，我就喝一杯，我会在进行一半之前就喝醉了，”芝加哥记者Jae Ha Kim在评论韩剧时说，“这里的每个人都说，‘我从来没有吃过向赛百味这么好吃，肉这么多的三明治。’”
Product placement in TV shows is a reality the world over. But South Korea’s terrestrial stations are prevented from inserting commercial breaks during programming, meaning many Korean companies must be creative about getting their wares in front of viewers. As Korean dramas have become more popular with international audiences, global brands have pushed to be part of the action.
And no company has pushed harder than Subway, which has grown into the world’s largest fast-food chain by store count since its founding in 1965 in Bridgeport, Conn.
Colin Clark, the country director for Subway in South Korea, said product placements in popular dramas like “Descendants of the Sun” had a positive impact on global sales, specifically citing markets in China and Singapore.
“I swear to you, it was a difference between night and day — before the product placement and after the product placement — the effect it had on the customers,” said Mr. Clark, who declined to provide specific sales figures.
Subway did not provide a total of how many Korean dramas its products had appeared in, but an informal tally by The New York Times counted appearances on 17 shows. That can add up to a lot of people seeing the company’s cold cuts. Netflix, with over 203 million worldwide members, has become a leading portal for Korean dramas. When the highly anticipated Korean drama “Sweet Home” was released on Netflix in December, 22 million viewers watched the show in its first month.
By sleekly presenting its products on Korean dramas as a harbinger of cool, Subway is also presenting a fresh image to American viewers who are increasingly watching the shows.
Recently, the company has faced scrutiny of its bread, which an Irish court ruled is not bread, and its tuna, which a lawsuit claimed is “anything but tuna.”
But on TV, pristinely clean Subway shops that pop with bright colors serve as the setting for business meetings, social gossip and dates for beautiful couples. Instead of cookies and tea, elderly Korean TV characters keep freshly wrapped Subway sandwiches at the ready — you never can know when an unexpected guest will drop by and crave an Italian sub.
On the popular Korean drama “Crash Landing on You,” North Korean soldiers and a South Korean businesswoman find common ground through Subway sandwiches.
Product placement in Korean shows began in earnest in 2010, when South Korea’s stringent broadcasting laws eased restrictions on the practice in an effort to increase network revenues and promote Korean goods. In 2018, South Korea’s networks sold $114 million worth of product placement, up 15 percent from the previous year, according to Soobum Lee, a mass communication professor at Incheon National University.
Shows collect an average of about $900,000 from product placements, although 2016’s “Descendants of the Sun” sold triple that amount, Mr. Lee said. It was also criticized by some viewers for excessive product placement.
Other American companies, like Papa John’s Pizza, have used product placements in Korean dramas, but none are as ubiquitous as Subway.
Ms. Kim said these kinds of shoehorned ads had become popular topics of discussion online, with some fans claiming they disrupt plots and threatening to stop watching altogether.
She pointed to criticism of the show “Guardian: The Lonely and Great God” (also known as “Goblin”) and a scene where it’s inferred that the protagonist prevents a man from committing sui/cide; in an effort to cheer him up, the suicidal man is handed a Subway sandwich. Subway is also celebrated in death; in another episode, the Grim Reaper is shown enjoying a meal from the chain.
“I know in the U.S. people are sick of it,” Ms. Kim said of the product placement. “We’ve had Subway, we know it’s not good. Stop trying to make it seem good.”
While American viewers may roll their eyes at Subway’s being portrayed as haute cuisine, Seung-Chul Yoo, a communications professor at Ewha Womans University in Seoul, said product placement had been proved to work.