The phrase, “Where’s the beef?” has become an indelible part of our culture. It has appeared in TV shows, popular songs, games and even a presidential debate. It all began when a fast food company wanted to shake up its advertising.
History of Wendy’s
Dave Thomas was born in Atlantic City but moved around the country several times with his family. When he was 15, he was living in Fort Wayne, Indiana, and working at a restaurant. When his father moved again, Thomas stayed in Fort Wayne. He dropped out of high school to work at the restaurant full-time. Thomas later served in the Korean War as a mess sergeant.
In 1955, Thomas met Kentucky Fried Chicken founder Harlan Sanders, who came to Fort Wayne looking for new franchisees. He hired Thomas as a regional manager for the new franchises.
After working for KFC for several years, Thomas opened his first restaurant in 1969. The famous logo of a smiling, redheaded girl was modeled after Thomas’s daughter, who also gave the restaurant its name. Within 10 years, there were more than 1,000 Wendy’s across the country. Today, Wendy’s is one of the biggest hamburger franchises in the world.
Where’s the Beef?
In its early years, Wendy’s advertising wasn’t that different from the advertising of its competitors. That changed in 1984, when Wendy’s hired advertising agency Dancer Fitzgerald Sample for a new campaign. The agency developed an ad titled “Fluffy Bun,” which featured three elderly people talking about a burger with an enormous, fluffy bun and a tiny meat patty.
Originally, the ad showed an elderly man who asked, “Where’s the beef?” Nobody paid attention, however. The agency changed the elderly man for a small, feisty woman named Clara Peller. Peller was an 81-year-old manicurist from Chicago who did a little acting on the side. When she asked the infamous question, she did it in a loud, grating bark that got everyone’s attention.
The ads drew a sharp contrast between Wendy’s and those other hamburger joints with tiny patties.
The commercials had several variations, but each had a similar setup. A group of elderly customers order a burger and marvel at the size of the bun. After a moment, Peller makes a disgusted face and demands, “Where’s the beef?”
Suddenly, the line was everywhere. During the 1984 Democratic presidential debate, Bob Mondale used it to attack his rival Gary Hart for his insubstantial answers. Peller became an overnight celebrity. She appeared on Saturday Night Live, all the late night talk shows and as a time keeper in Wrestlemania 2. The phrase became a watchword on several comedy series, including Scrubs, Psych, The Simpsons and The Office.
Wendy’s credited the ad campaign with a 31% boost in sales. Advertising Age has called it one of the top 10 greatest slogans of the twentieth century.
Kinder, Gentler Campaign
As the 1980s came to an end, Wendy’s dropped the famous line and switched to a kinder, gentler advertising campaign. These new ads featured the restaurant’s founder himself. According to Thomas, he didn’t want to appear in the ads and wanted to find a celebrity spokesperson, but he couldn’t find anyone who was as passionate about Wendy’s as he was.
Years earlier, Thomas had talked Harlan Sanders into appearing in commercials for KFC. Now, he took his own advice and appeared in the Wendy’s commercials. Thomas had an honest, unpretentious manner that was appealing to viewers. From 1989 until his death in 2002, Thomas appeared in more than 800 commercials.
Protecting Its Trademark
The famous slogan is clearly a valuable commodity for Wendy’s. The burger company trademarked “Where’s the beef?” in 1984 and has kept its registration current by filing renewals and affidavits of continued use. This ensures the company can continue to use it and, perhaps more important, stop other companies from using it.
In 2013, Wendy’s sued the United Dairy Farmers for creating and selling products called Frosties and Frosty Malts. Wendy’s thought these products were too similar to Wendy’s famous Frosty desserts, which have been a Wendy’s menu item since 1969.
The lawsuit said the farmers’ group was trying to use Wendy’s well-known packaging and names to market its products. The lawsuit was based on intellectual property rights.
The two sides settled the lawsuit with an agreement that the farmers would stop using the Frostie and Frosty Malt names.
Wendy’s was on the receiving end of a lawsuit in 2019. Jaymo’s Sauces, a Peoria, Illinois, company, filed a lawsuit saying Wendy’s had appropriated Jaymo’s slogan, “S’Awesome.” In a five-count suit, Jaymo’s said it has been in business since 2013 and began using the “S’Awesome” slogan in 2015. In 2017, Wendy’s began advertising its chicken tenders with an accompanying sauce described as “S’Awesome.”
The lawsuit alleged that, “Wendy’s acts were and continue to be undertaken in bad faith and in a deliberate attempt to capitalize on the goodwill and reputation of Jaymo’s and Jaymo’s ‘S’Awesome.’” A lawyer for the sauce company called it a classic case of David v. Goliath. The lawsuit is pending.
Wendy’s asked where the beef was and found marketing gold. Even if the company never uses the phrase again, the slogan is an unforgettable part of Wendy’s history and image.