Retro Restaurant Ads: 1980s Burger Wars

The internets are teeming with classic television ads for restaurants.  Some of them are downright awful.  Some have stood the test of time very well.  Whether they are good or bad, they are a fun reminder of days gone by.  Today I am offering a walk down memory lane.  In the mid-1980s there was a “burger war” underway.  Each of the fast food burger chains were trying to gain market dominance through advertising.  Each hit the airwaves with their own advertising campaigns.  Here were their efforts.

The McDLT

Some of you might not be old enough to remember the McDLT.  Here is a brief history.  In 1984, McDonalds was looking for a way to compete with The Whopper that was offered at Burger King.  The primary differences in the companies’ system were that Burger King made their burgers after they were ordered.  This allowed Burger King to put fresh lettuce and tomatoes on their burgers.  McDonald’s tried to compete by introducing the McDLT.  This product featured a large Styrofoam package with two sides.  One side contained the hot burger while the other contained the buns and vegetables.  Or maybe it is easier to picture from seeing the ad.

Yes, that is Jason Alexander.  Within a year of this commercial he got his big break in Seinfeld.  The McDLT did not fare so well.  It was discontinued within a year of this ad.  Apparently, people decided that an oversized container that was not biodegradable was not the best idea.

Where’s The Beef

Clara Peller had only been acting for two years and only made $317.40 when she had her most famous role.  She only had one line and the ad campaign lasted less than 6 months.  Her catchphrase, “Where’s the beef?” was the highlight of one of the most effective campaigns ever.  The next year Wendy’s sales jumped 31%. 

Ms Peller died about three and a half years after this commercial was shot.  Her fame came late in life.  She did however land several roles after this including an appearance at Wrestlemania II.  This catchphrase even became a centerpiece of the 1984 Presidential Campaign in which Walter Mondale used it effectively on his way to the Democratic nomination.

Herb

If “where’s the beef” was an example of a successful commercial campaign, Herb might be the opposite.  Burger King was looking for “Herb.”  Herb was the last person in America to have not had a Burger King Burger.  They tried to convince Herb to come in for a burger.  Eventually Herb’s identity was revealed during the Super Bowl.  Later, they continued the promotion by offering $5,000 to the first person to spot him at one of their restaurants.  Everyone in the restaurant at the time would be entered into a drawing for $1,000,000.

Of all three commercials this was considered the biggest flop.  Although, I think it is the one that would best fit into a modern television ad.  Burger King eventually finished the campaign by offering 99 cent Whoppers to anyone who came in and said, “I’m not Herb.”  The actor who played Herb, Jon Menick, does have something in common with Clara Peller.  He was also a guest at Wrestlemania II.  He contined his acting career and made appearances in several popular TV shows of the 80s and 90s.

If you like this new feature, leave a comment or share this post on Facebook via the links at the bottom of the page.  If this proves popular, there will be more to come.

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2 comments on “Retro Restaurant Ads: 1980s Burger Wars

  1. MikeQ on said:

    Great article … a nice addition to an already excellent blog. I wouldn’t have gone out of my way to look up that old “Were’s the Beef” video, but having it right there in front of me while reading the article … it’s still a riot. Great job.

    • David Hayden on said:

      The Herb ones were killing me. I forgot how big of a flop the campaign was, but it was one of the first attempts at viral marketing.

      This was actually a test run for a feature I am hoping to include in an upcoming project. You know since keeping up with 6 blogs, two other websites, and self publishing a book while working full time isn’t enough to keep me occupied.

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