In 1985, McDonalds served nearly 15 million customers annually, bringing in around $9 billion (with a ‘B’) every year. They had a stronghold over the industry, handling about 37 percent of the market. But, others were gaining steam.
In January of 1984, Wendy’s began airing its incredibly successful “Where’s the Beef” campaign, with a very simple idea.
Three elderly women were served a hamburger. They began to describe in detail how amazing the bun looked:
It certainly is a big bun. It’s a very big bun. It’s a big fluffy bun. It’s a very big fluffy–
They lifted the top of the burger to find a ridiculously small burger with cheese and a pickle. Immediately, one of the women screamed out:
Where’s the Beef?Wendy’s ad from 1984
That moment, by 1980’s standards, went viral. Clara Peller – the woman forever associated with the catchphrase – became a national sensation. T-shirts, coffee mugs, and even beach towels were emblazoned with the phrase and/or her image.
It even made its way into the political arena. During the 1984 presidential primaries, Gary Hart had moved into a front-runner for the Democratic nomination and often touted his “new ideas.” After Hart mentioned his “new ideas” once more, Walter Mondale leaned forward and said:
According to Wendy’s, the campaign helped them increase their annual revenue by 31 percent. Not bad for a woman who made $317.40/day for the commercial.
Don’t feel sorry for her, though – Wendy’s claimed she made half a million dollars for the ads, so everyone went home happy.
Her time with Burger King ended a year later when she filmed a commercial for Prego spaghetti sauce. Wendy’s got angry because she implied that she finally found the beef in their classic sauce.
Wendy’s put out a statement that read:
Ms Peller can find the beef in only one place, and that is Wendy’s.Statement on the dismissal of Clara Peller from Wendy’s campaigns
She never worked for Wendy’s again and passed away two years later at the age of 86.
After seeing all that success, Burger King wanted their share of those sales dollars, so they put together a plan to create their own mascot of sorts. His name? Herb.
Launched in November of 1985, Burger King’s ads told the story of a man who had never eaten a hamburger from Burger King. In fact, according to them, he was the only such man in the country.
They created a full biography for him, citing that he was a duck decoy salesman, long before Duck Dynasty pretended that was cool. He hailed from Wisconsin and was commonly referred to as “Herb the Nerd.”
Played by actor Jon Menick, Herb’s job was to visit Burger King’s all across the country and hope to be spotted. He would hang out in the restaurant until someone noticed his olive-green jacket, way too short pants and thick black glasses. You know, how all nerds looked in the 80’s.
Once someone acknowledged him by name, he’d tell them they won $5000. Then he would pack up and move to the next state. He continued this for a month and visited all fifty states and the District of Columbia.
While this all sounded great on paper, the reality of it didn’t quite go as planned. For starters, the early ads were so cryptic, nobody had any idea what they were advertising. Print ads saying, “It’s not too late, Herb.” or “What are you waiting for, Herb?” appeared in national publications with no reference at all to Burger King.
In fact, there was a story that one man, who owed some money to loan sharks, thought he was being personally targeted.
Once they finally revealed the premise, they still never showed who Herb was, so people would just be expected to randomly approach strangers in the restaurants and harass them for their name.
Quick personal aside – I would like to personally thank Burger King on behalf of those of us going through… um… awkward stages in 1985/86. “Herb” was not a name I wanted, but was thrust upon me more than once by my high school peers. In 1984, it was “Waldo” from Van Halen’s Hot for Teacher video. Eighteen months later, it was “Herb”.
Anyway, the blind campaign went on until Super Bowl XX on January 26, 1986 – the same one I mentioned in a previous post where the Patriots got crushed by the Bears.
Herb was finally shown and more details from the contest were revealed. Not only would the spotter get $5K, but everyone in the restaurant at that time would be entered into a drawing to win ONE MILLION DOLLARS!!
This change didn’t help the controversy any. In fact, trouble was already brewing. An 11-year old boy spotted Herb, but was told that since he was under 16, the money would go to his older friend. Burger King’s defense was that they didn’t want kids skipping school all day so they could sit at Burger King and wait for a Herb sighting.
That particular situation actually climbed up to the State Supreme Court which claimed that BK was approaching “consumer fraud” because they had failed to list an age requirement.
One other case involved another minor, but rather than deal with the corporate issues, the franchise owner just gave money to the kid himself.
Shortly after that, Herb was retired and mostly forgotten. He made an appearance as a guest timekeeper at Wrestlemania 2 on April 7th, but the response he received showed the audience had already moved on. (Ironically, another guest timekeeper at that same event? “Where’s the Beef” herself – Ms. Clara Peller.)
Although the campaign earned some positive notice, it was mostly looked at as a failure. What did Burger King get for their $40 million investment? A profit loss of 40% in 1986.
Honestly though, I’d much rather have Herb than that creepy King mascot they kept bringing back.