Wendy’s “Where’s the Beef?”: An Innovation Conundrum

October 26, 2009 at 10:18 am 3 comments


photo by Vanessa Pike-Russell (Flickr.com)

by Alec Patton

In  1984, the American fast food chain Wendy’s ran a TV commercial that caused a sensation:

The ad is set in a fictional fast food restaurant called ‘The Big Bun'(no titters, please), in which two elderly women are poking at an enormous hamburger bun that contains an absurdly small burger, bemusedly commenting ‘it certainly is a fluffy bun’, until a diminutive octagenarian beautician named Clara Peller appears, takes one look at the enormous bun and miniscule hamburger patty, and shrieks ‘Where’s the beef?!’ 
‘Where’s the Beef’, captured the country’s imagination – Wendy’s licensed t-shirts, coffee mugs and beachtowels, and ended up being adopted by the (unsuccessful) presidential candidate Walter Mondale.
The first lesson here is that when it comes to iconic advertising campaigns, you really had to be there to understand what the big deal was (imagine explaining the Budweiser “whazzzaahhhhhhh!!’ ads twenty years from now – for that matter, imagine explaining them now… but I remember a more innocent time, about a decade ago, when greeting your friends with a hearty “whazzzaahhhhhhh!!’ marked you as comedy connoisseur).
But that’s a matter for another day. Because what’s really interesting is what happened next: in 1985, Clara Peller appeared in an ad for Prego pasta sauce, in which she announced ‘I found it. I really found it.’ When the ad appeared, Wendy’s terminated Clara Peller’s contract on the grounds that the Prego ad ‘infers that Clara found the beef at somewhere other than Wendy’s restaurants.’
Now, the ‘big bun’ ad is sort of cute and off-beat, a good bit of work for the advertiser who dreamed it up (though its success seems to have relied heavily on Peller’s delivery). But for my money, the really brilliant advertiser was the one who hired Peller for the Prego ad. In other words, the  really radical thinking didn’t go into coming up with the idea, but stealing it.
There’s a tension here between innovation at the point of invention, and at the point of application – both are necessary, both are tricky, and innovation at the point of application can lead to a lot of bad blood – as it did between Wendy’s, Prego, and Clara Peller.

Entry filed under: Innovation Worldwide.

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3 Comments Add your own

  • 1. tom  |  October 26, 2009 at 2:26 pm

    In aikido we say “you can’t be taught good technique, you have to steal it”

  • […] ideas can be manifold, one of these has been excellently described by Alec Patton in his blog Wendy’s “Where’s the Beef?”: An Innovation Conundrum. What is really interesting is Easton’s perception of the problem: • There is a culture in the […]

  • 3. V.E.G.  |  May 4, 2010 at 5:34 pm

    Clara Peller is born in Russia. Her real full name is possibly Klara Wolfovna Swerdlova Peller (My best guess).


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