Last Updated Jul 8, 2015 7:42 AM EDT
After more than a decade as a paid pitchman for Subway, Jared Fogle is a familiar face to most Americans. On Tuesday, it was unclear whether the 37-year-old who dieted his way to national acclaim will remain likable, a key factor in whether the international sandwich chain that employs him continues to do so.
Hours after state and federal investigators raided Fogle's home in Zionsville, Indiana, on Tuesday, Subway issued a statement saying it was "shocked" at the development and expressed the view that it was related to a probe two months earlier that resulted in the former executive director of the Jared Foundation, Russell Taylor, being arrested on federal child pornography charges.
"Right now they are standing by their man. They want to gather more facts before they make their decision," said David La Torre, a principal at La Torre Communications, a Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, public relations firm hired in 2012 by Penn State University in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky sex abuse scandal. "Despite that, in the social media world, they may be forced to go out of their comfort zone."
By late Tuesday afternoon, the chain issued another statement, saying the company and Fogle had "mutually agreed to suspend their relationship" due to the current investigation.
"It's the right move. They are suspending him, not firing him. Subway has bought itself some time," La Torre said. "I'm sure they are probably very sensitive to the whole issue of child porn. Any more viable evidence might make it unfixable."
Hours after the story broke, Subway's corporate site still had Fogle featured prominently, detailing his history with the company and linking to his foundation, which seeks to combat childhood obesity. "That's a moment of Subway being pretty tone deaf, or maybe not moving fast enough," Daren Brabham, a communications professor at the University of Southern California, said.
But by late afternoon, the site had no mention of Fogle, other than an illustration of a tweet relaying the mutual decision by the company and Fogle to temporarily part ways.
The situation illustrates the hazards of attaching a brand too closely to one individual and raises questions about how much vetting should be done before a corporation, university or other entity attaches itself to a personality.
"If the person goes south, the brand can tank with it," Brabham said. "Some brands become so synonymous with a person, they have a difficult time separating -- for instance, what is going on with Donald Trump, when the name is on the brand. Or people like Martha Stewart and her criminal dealings."
"In a case like Subway, ditching the spokesperson would be the logical choice. Still in the eyes of the public, Jared will always be the Subway guy," Brabham said.
"In many ways he is their brand, at least for the last decade or more -- that's a pretty powerful brand to turn their back on," said La Torre. "The court of public opinion is very slippery, oftentimes corporations don't wait for legal charges. I think you stand by your guy until public opinion makes it so you can't."
On Tuesday, Fogle's attorney said his client was cooperating with law enforcement authorities and had not been detained, arrested or charged.