Retro Commercials: Wendy’s ‘Where’s the Beef?’

I don’t know about you, but commercials can often take me back to my formative years as quickly as any song or movie can. That is why we will continue this semi-regular feature on ’80s commercials that I consider particularly memorable, noteworthy, or forgotten. Television commercials were much more influential back when we were forced to watch them without the luxury to fast-forward through and/or stream shows with limited or no interruptions. This issue will cover the Wendy’s “Where’s the Beef?” campaign that started in 1984.

Who would’ve thought when then 81-year-old Clara Peller uttered those unforgettable words that “Where’s the beef?” would become a national sensation and one of the most iconic catchphrases of the decade? Well, it did. “It certainly is a big bun. It’s a very big bun.” Here is the original “Where’s the Beef?” commercial which first aired on January 10, 1984…

Clara Peller was a retired manicurist from the Chicago area when she unpredictably became the face of Wendy’s fast food restaurants. Those three little words and the manner in which Peller delivered them became a cultural phenomenon with Peller starring in a series of other commercials asking her suddenly-famous question. If you were alive during the mid-80s you probably said “Where’s the beef?” to someone yourself at one point or another. And it delivered not only attention, but more importantly dollars to the bottom line. Wendy’s worldwide sales in 1985 jumped 31% to $945 million. Wendy’s senior vice president for corporate communications, Denny Lynch, stated at the time that “with Clara we accomplished as much in five weeks as we did in 14 1/2 years.” Despite standing just 4-feet-10-inches tall, being hard of hearing and suffering from emphysema, Clara Peller sold a lot of hamburgers and became a star thanks to “Where’s the beef?”.

The creative team certainly deserves some recognition. The commercial was directed by Joe Sedelmaier and written by Cliff Freeman as part of a campaign by premier advertising agency Dancer Fitzgerald Sample (who had previous success with Toyota’s “Oh, what a feeling” campaign). Imagine sitting in that brainstorming session when somebody pipes up and says, “How about Where’s the beef?” William Welter, the executive vice president of Wendy’s International, led the marketing team at the time of the campaign. The public relations and promotion campaign were created by Alan Hilburg and the Burson-Marsteller team under the direction of Denny Lynch. But I am not sure it would’ve enjoyed the same success without Clara Peller being the one delivering the line.

Here she is in one of the follow-up commercials still asking that same question…

And here’s one more, though she doesn’t even get the full catchphrase out in this one…

The success was relatively short-lived. During the height of popularity, Peller signed a contract with the Campbell Soup Company to appear in an advertisement for Prego Pasta Plus spaghetti sauce since the product didn’t compete directly with Wendy’s. In the Prego commercial, Peller examines the Prego sauce and after wondering “Where’s the beef?” declares, “I found it! I really found it”. However, after the Prego commercial aired on television in 1985, Wendy’s management decided to terminate her contract, contending that the Prego commercial implies “that Clara found the beef at somewhere other than Wendy’s restaurants.” Following the conclusion of the “Where’s the beef?” campaign, Wendy’s Restaurants entered a prolonged two-year sales slump with consumer awareness of the Wendy’s brand probably not recovering for more like five years (with the advent of a new, humorous line of TV commercials featuring the brand’s founder, Dave Thomas). She continued as a cult celebrity for a couple more years, even appearing in the 1985 film Moving Violations, before Clara Peller passed away one week after her 85th birthday in 1987.

There you go, another trip down memory lane in the form of TV commercials. I believe the Wendy’s “Where’s the Beef?” campaign (or at least catchphrase) is one of the most iconic of the ’80s decade or any other decade for that matter. Even with all of the so-called marketing geniuses out there with their graduate degrees and such, nobody seems to come up with pure gold like a little 81-year-old lady yelling “Where’s the beef?” Ad Age named it one of the top 10 ad slogans of the 20th century! Walter Mondale even quoted the slogan to rebut Gary Hart in the March 1984 Democratic Presidential Debate. Even during the Super Bowl, you rarely see any commercials like these that are both interesting and effective. For that short time back in 1984, Wendy’s found that magic. That is pretty awesome and, yep, you know it happened back in the great decade of the ’80s.

More Retro Commercial Features on TRN

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Old School Tim has an adoring devotion to the awesome '80s decade. He loves to relive and share that nostalgia on a regular basis. The Kickin' it Old School blog site has been retired, but you can still get daily doses of '80s goodness on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and anywhere else they let him.