Happy Birthday, Where's the Beef?

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Yesterday marked the 27th anniversary of a pivotal event in American culinary history: the first airing of the Wendy's "Where's the Beef?" commercial (above).

I know what you're thinking. "Has it really been 27 years?" If you're like me, you can remember exactly what you were doing when the ad first came on. Not because the ad was so hilarious (although it was funny, in the way that the Clapper and rapping grandmas are funny the first time), but because January 10 was a Tuesday, and in 1984 that meant, like all good Americans, I was watching The A-Team and Remington Steele on NBC. Damn straight. I pity the fool who wasn't alive (or old enough to watch TV) in 1984.

"Where's the Beef?" was no ordinary ad. Sure, fast food ad campaigns are often memorable, as Lennie Ambrose documented last year. But this ad went viral in a way that is hard to comprehend, given the nonexistence of the Internet at the time. The ad was stunningly, ridiculously popular, and the catchphrase became a staple of radio DJs, comedians, and late-night talk show hosts, to say nothing of every schmoe at the water cooler (or in my case, the water fountain at school). It was even co-opted by eventual Democratic Party presidential nominee Walter Mondale during a primary debate. Can you imagine McCain or Obama quoting a Burger King tagline?

Wendy's, which reported a revenue increase of 31 percent in the wake of the ad, quickly commissioned several follow-up spots, all featuring Clara Peller, the tiny old woman with the grating voice who uttered those famous three words.

Sanctioned T-shirts, mugs, bumper stickers, and other ephemera followed.

Then, after a year, the craze ended just as quickly as it began. It had perhaps already run its course, but in March 1985, after Peller appeared in a commercial for Campbell's Prego spaghetti sauce and uttered the words "I found it. I really found it," Wendy's gave Peller and the "Where's the Beef?" campaign the boot.

The catchphrase, long devoid of any connection to Wendy's, now lives only in our memories, aided by successive generations of copy editors and food bloggers who know an evergreen meme when they see it. (See here, here, here, here, here and here.)

None of this changes the fact that Wendy's burgers are abysmal. They sucked then, and they suck now. In the spring of 2007, shortly after Wendy's introduced the Baconator, they parked a huge truck next to City Hall at lunchtime and handed out free Baconators. There was a line around the block, and you better believe I was in it. Because I love free food that much. For reals.

The line grew so long that expeditors started handing out Baconator "coupons" to be used at the Wendy's in the tunnels, but I was not to be put off so easily. I wanted my free food, and I wanted it now! After waiting in line for nearly an hour, I returned to my desk with a still-warm Baconator and dug in. Couldn't even make it halfway. The patties were grey and flavorless, the cheese was a limpid congealed blob, and the bacon was soggy. Just tragic. Especially because burger trucks had such a treasured place in my memories, following countless appearances by the In-N-Out truck at events when I was in grad school at UCLA. Oh, In-N-Out . When will you come to Houston?

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