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How Arby’s came to embrace Jon Stewart’s jabs — and even create a sandwich in his honor

Arby’s rolls with the punches. (Courtesy of Arby’s)

If you’ve been a loyal watcher of “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart” in recent years, you know the show has been serving up a steady diet of jokes about Arby’s.

“It’s like shock and awe for your bowels,” Stewart declared back in June. He’s also called it “the meal that’s a dare for your colon” and “the only food classified as a war crime.”

And yet, as Stewart wrapped up 16 years as host of the Comedy Central show this week, Arby’s wasn’t exactly saying good riddance. The fast-food sandwich chain sponsored the penultimate episode, which featured two custom commercials, and had its chief executive, Paul Brown, appear in a taped send-off segment in the finale.

Arby’s was worried when it first heard Stewart’s cracks back in 2013, said Christopher Fuller, the chain’s vice president of brand and corporate communications.

“It was that moment where everyone was kind of getting together in a room to decide, ‘How do we handle this?’ This isn’t a good mention of the brand.”

During the meeting, though, Fuller says the team decided not to try to push back against Stewart’s barbs.

Arby’s was in the midst of a revitalization of its brand, which the company has said has the oldest customer base in the industry, and executives thought maybe a bit of publicity — even if it wasn’t exactly favorable — might not be a bad thing.

Fuller said the thinking was: “This is a brand that in a lot of ways is a sleeping giant, and we haven’t been in the conversation, so there’s an opportunity here to really embrace it.”

Since then, Arby’s has tried to show it is in on the joke.

In November 2013, Arby’s sent a smorgasbord of sandwiches to Stewart’s team, accompanied by a letter from Brown that contained “fun, playful language about the banter that Jon had put out there.” Fuller said they got a thank-you note from “Daily Show” producers.

And when Stewart announced earlier this year that he was leaving the show, they ribbed him on Twitter:

Fuller said it’s hard to measure whether the publicity has had any impact on Arby’s sales, which were up 7.6 percent in the most recent quarter and up 9.6 percent in the previous quarter. But customer sentiment on social media and in e-mails to Arby’s seems largely favorable, he said. Indeed, AdWeek reports that the social media reaction to Arby’s Wednesday night farewell commercials was mostly positive.

“We’re seeing in social media that we were getting a lot of credit for being cool with it, that we were having a sense of humor,” Fuller said.

Arby’s isn’t done sending up Stewart yet. Fuller said the chain moved this week to add a “secret” menu item in his honor — i.e., one that won’t be listed on its menu but that Arby’s will make if in-the-know customers ask for it. The sandwich, called the Daily Deli, is a double corned beef on rye — Stewart’s favorite.

Members of Arby’s marketing team had a party at their Atlanta offices Thursday night to watch their boss’s cameo on the show.

Brown quipped, “Jon Stewart: It’s like your TV threw up on your face,” in a segment that featured other frequent Stewart punching bags such as Bill O’Reilly, Chris Christie and John McCain.

“We’ve both had a lot of fun with it,” Fuller said. “And we’re so glad that [in 2013] when we were all in that room, we decided, ‘You know what? Let’s embrace it. Let’s not run from it.’ ”

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Update: This story has been updated to clarify that Arby’s sent sandwiches to “The Daily Show” in November 2013, not November 2014.