It’s hard to believe that 30 years ago this month, Wendy’s first aired its iconic Where’s the Beef ad.
The commercial aired on the small screen on January 10, 1984, featuring three elderly white-haired women examining a hamburger. As they raved about the large and fluffy hamburger bun, one of the little old ladies, Clara Peller, in a uniquely harsh foghorn gruff voice, pointed out the obviously minuscule hamburger patty paired with the bun.
Clara Peller, 81 years old, created a cultural movement just by swiveling her head back and forth, looking bewildered and barking the catch-phrase WHERE’S THE BEEF? Her delivery of the Wendy’s slogan finished 10th on a list of ten top slogans of the 20th century compiled by Advertising Age Magazine.
At 80 years old, Mrs. Peller was hired as a temporary manicurist for a television commercial set in a Chicago barbershop. The agency was so impressed by her no-nonsense manner and unique voice, they asked her to sign a contract as an actress for the agency. Though hard of hearing and suffering from emphysema, which limited her to speak long lines of dialogue, Peller was quickly used in a number of television spot advertisements, including a new commercial for the Wendy’s Restaurant chain. The diminutive octogenarian actress made the three-word phrase a cultural phenomenon, and herself a cult star.
At Wendy’s, sales jumped 31% to $945 million in 1985 worldwide. Wendy’s senior vice-president for communications, Denny Lynch, stated at the time that ‘with Clara we accomplished as much in five weeks as we did in 14 ½ years.’
Nothing could stop the Queen of Commercials now!
The actress had interpreted her Wendy’s agreement as allowing her to participate in any commercial products that did not compete with Wendy’s hamburgers. Subsequently she signed a contract with the Campbell Soup Company to appear in an advertisement for Prego Pasta Plus spaghetti. In the Prego commercial, Peller examines the sauce and says, ‘I found it! I found it!’
Wendy’s terminated Peller’s contract claiming that ‘Clara can find the beef only in one place and that is Wendy’s.’
Clara Peller’s response was short and swift, ‘I’ve made them millions and they don’t appreciate me.’
‘We’re very regretful, but we are not doing this out of spite or anger,’ said a Wendy’s spokesman. ‘We paid Mrs. Peller more than $500,000 in 1984 to appear in commercials, promotions and personal appearances.’
Peller denied earning that much.
‘I made some money which is nice for an older person,’ she said, ‘but Wendy’s made millions because of me.’
Despite the setback with Wendy’s, Peller continued to make the most of her new-found fame granting numerous press interviews and making several guest appearances on television. She appeared on Saturday Night Live and made an appearance on Moving Violations, a low budget 1985 Neal Israel comedy.
Nashville songwriter and DJ Coyote McCloud wrote and performed his hit song Where’s The Beef with Clara Peller in 1984.
Clara Peller died in 1987, one week after her 85th birthday.