Friday, January 10, 2014

Remember 'Where's the Beef?'

Thirty years ago tonight, an iconic TV commercial made its debut.

It was titled "Fluffy Bun," and it showed three elderly ladies looking at a very large hamburger bun, ostensibly served by a prominent (but unnamed) fast–food outlet. "It's a very big fluffy bun," they all agreed.

But then they lifted the top half of the bun to reveal a tiny hamburger patty.

"Where's the beef?" demanded 81–year–old Clara Peller. The commercial promoted Wendy's hamburgers.

I was astonished at the popularity of the commercial. It was funny, but I never thought it was anything remarkable.

It was one of those instances where a commercial becomes symbolic of its times. I don't know if it is possible to explain why, other than to say it was a perfect storm of circumstances and media.

Like the title of the movie "Groundhog Day," which has come to be synonymous with the notion of spinning one's wheels, the commercial's punchline took on a life of its own; today, if someone asks "Where's the beef?" that person probably isn't inquiring about the nearest hamburger joint. Instead, it's most likely a comment on the substance (or absence thereof) of a person, place or thing.

In 1984, the original commercial spawned a series of popular followup commercials, each featuring Peller and her catchphrase, and she became a media sensation.

Later that year, Democratic presidential nominee Walter Mondale used the catchphrase in his unsuccessful campaign.