THE BOOTLEG FILES: WHERE’S THE BEEF?

BOOTLEG FILES 414: “Where’s the Beef?” (1984 TV commercial for the Wendy’s fast food chain, starring Clara Peller).

LAST SEEN: It is online at several video sites.

AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: None.

REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: It is one of many classic commercials that stay alive via bootlegging.

CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE:  For a 30-second commercial?

Last weekend’s Super Bowl broadcast offered a line-up of dismal and confusing television commercials. With Jerry Seinfeld recycling 20-year-old shtick, David Beckham vamping in his underwear and Clint Eastwood shilling for Chrysler and the president that saved its corporate ass, the advertising interruptions suggested that the creativity well has run dry when it comes to product promotions.

Back in 1984, however, an unlikely television commercial caught everyone by surprise and briefly created a national pop culture phenomenon. The advertisement was designed to promote a second-tier fast food operation, but it wound up making an overnight sensation of its unlikely star and her brief dialogue.

The Wendy’s fast food chain was created in 1969, but it always seemed to run a distant third to McDonald’s and Burger King in terms of popularity. One main problem was the chain’s advertising, or lack thereof – while everyone knew Ronald McDonald and the monarch called the Burger King from endless TV commercials, Wendy’s rarely ventured into small-screen marketing.

In the early 1980s, Wendy’s saw its market share begin to shrink as the fast food industry became increasingly competitive. The advertising agency Dancer Fitzgerald Sample was brought in to create a campaign that would set Wendy’s apart. Veteran TV director Joe Seidelmaier was assigned to helm the spot, which was designed to highlight Wendy’s key selling point: its generous portions of hamburger meat.

In the commercial, three tiny elderly women approach the counter of a fast food joint called “Home of the Big Bun.” Indeed, a hamburger with an absurdly large bun is on the counter before them.  Two of the women speak in soft, gentle voices as they review the meal before them.

“It certainly is a big bun,” says one of the women.

“It’s a very big bun,” says the other.

“It’s a big fluffy bun,” remarks the first woman.

“It’s a very big fluffy bun,” answers her companion.

The bun is then lifted to reveal a pathetically tiny sliver of meat, topped with a thin slice of American cheese and an itty-bitty pickle. At this point, the third woman angrily stares at the misshapen meal and bellows in an unexpectedly deep and dyspeptic voice, “Where’s the beef? Hey, where’s the beef?”

That third woman was 82-year-old Clara Peller, who spent most of her adult life as a manicurist in the Chicago area. A year earlier, the Russian-born Peller – who had no previous experience in show business – somehow found herself in a bit part as a manicurist in a Chicago-based commercial filmed in a barbershop. She certainly made an impression: although she was a mere 4 feet 10 inches tall, her foghorn voice and irascible appearance made her the antithesis of the stereotypical granny. She was signed by Dancer Fitzgerald Sample to appear in commercials produced by the agency.

Peller made her first impact in a commercial for Jartran Truck Rental, playing a cranky woman who moves her furniture and her excessive collection of pet rabbits to a new home – only to belatedly realize that she left her snoozing husband behind at their old residence. Joe Seidelmaier directed that spot, and he cast her again in the Wendy’s advertisement.

Peller’s distinctive bellowing of “Where’s the beef?” – which was punctuated by an exasperated look off-camera beyond the counter and the grumble, “I don’t think there’s anybody back there!” – added an unexpected kick to, admittedly, a mildly amusing commercial. But the impact of the commercial and Peller’s line delivery took on a life of its own.

The commercial first aired on January 10, 1984. Almost immediately, the expression “Where’s the beef?” became part of the American lexicon. Two months after its first broadcast, the phrase “Where’s the beef?” was used in the Democratic presidential campaign, when Walter Mondale amusingly knocked the vagueness of rival Gary Hart’s policy platform, which was fashioned on the mantra of “new ideas.”

“When I hear your ‘new ideas,’” said Mondale to Hart during a live debate, “I’m reminded of that ad, ‘Where’s the beef?'” With that line, Hart’s campaign was disabled and would never recover.

Peller and “Where’s the beef?” quickly became even more ubiquitous thanks to merchandise marketing featuring her cranky image and catch phrase. Peller made a surprise appearance on “Saturday Night Live” and recorded a novelty song with Nashville DJ Coyote McCloud. A second Wendy’s commercial featuring Peller and the other elderly women was created. Peller, who was paid actor’s scale of $317.40 a day for the first commercial, reportedly earned hundreds of thousands based on her newfound fame.

“I made some money, which is nice for an older person,” she said in an interview. “But Wendy’s made millions because of me.”

It certainly did! The fast-food chain saw a 31% spike in its 1984 revenue thanks to the “Where’s the beef?” campaign. But a year later, it all came crashing down when Peller – unbeknownst to Wendy’s – filmed a spot for the Prego spaghetti sauce brand. In that commercial, Peller happily held up a Prego’s jar and exclaimed, “I found it! I really found it!”  Wendy’s abruptly terminated its contract with Peller, stating that the Prego advertisement ”infers that Clara found the beef at somewhere other than Wendy’s restaurants.”

Wendy’s founder Dave Thomas would later appear as the corporate spokesman in the chain’s low-keyed, post-Clara Peller advertising campaigns, but he never truly resonated with TV viewers and the chain never found its way into the center of U.S. pop culture again. Wendy’s recalled the “Where’s the Beef?” novelty last September in a print advertising campaign, but it was too little and too late.

As for Peller, she made cameo appearances in the low budget films “Moving Violations” (1985) and “The Stuff” (1986) and briefly turned up in an episode of Steven Spielberg’s flop TV series “Amazing Stories.” She was also among the B-listers who populated the star line-up in the 1986 broadcast of “Wrestlemania 2.” Peller died August 11, 1987, one week after her 86th birthday.

As with most TV commercials, “Where’s the Beef?” remains alive today via unauthorized postings on Internet video sites. The 30-second spot can easily be found – and if it is not quite as funny as it seemed back in 1984, it still represents deserves praise for its unique manner of selling hamburgers.

IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either for crass commercial purposes or profit-free shits and giggles, is not something that the entertainment industry appreciates. On occasion, law enforcement personnel boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and distribute bootleg material, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. Oddly, the purchase and ownership of bootleg DVDs is perfectly legal. Go figure!




Posted on February 10, 2012 in Bootleg Files, Features by
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