"Where's the Beef?!" - A Look Back at Wendy's TV Commercial Icon Clara Peller

Herbie J Pilato

Photo bycnynews.com

In the mid-1980s, Clara Peller changed the way the world perceived hamburgers. When it came to proportionate fast food meals, for her, size mattered - and she made it matter to the rest of us, too.

According to journalist Jake Rossen and MentalFloss.com, a then-83-year-old Peller, "a manicurist from Chicago, Illinois, used three words to ignite a pop culture phenomenon: 'Where’s the beef?' The query would lead to a 32 percent sales increase for the chain. It would end in a controversy involving strained business relations and spaghetti sauce."

As Rossen went on to document, "Peller had been making appearances in television commercials for 13 years, often for smaller regional businesses, before being "discovered" by famed Chicago ad director Joe Sedelmaier. He hired the diminutive 4-foot, 10-inch performer to deliver the zinger in a television spot in January 1984 that reinforced the generous portion of ground beef provided by Wendy’s when compared to other chains.

"In the first and most recognizable spot, two older women are seen discussing an oversized bun from an unnamed franchise before Peller appears and cuts to the chase. “Where’s the beef?” she demands. 'Hey! Where’s the beef?' Peller said her line in response to someone tugging on the hem of her skirt off-camera, as she was hard of hearing and easily missed her cue."

"The image of a mercurial, indignant woman who has run out of patience for undersized beef patties struck a chord with consumers," Rossen reported. "Wendy’s saw their business increase by a whopping one-third, and Peller became a celebrity. In addition to filming more commercials, she made public appearances and did the talk show rounds. 'Where’s the Beef?' was emblazoned on T-shirts and soon became a metaphor for something lacking substance. High school cheerleaders shouted it from the sidelines, while clergymen adopted it for sermons."

As Rossen concluded, "The beef between the parties reached a critical point when Peller appeared in a Prego spaghetti sauce commercial in 1985. 'I found it,' Peller said. 'I really found it.'

In 1987, Peller died. Her obituary in the Chicago Tribune made mention of how she lived alone in Hyde Park for many years and was frequently seen enjoying coffee with friends at the local McDonald’s.

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Herbie J Pilato is the author of several books about pop culture including RETRO ACTIVE TELEVISION, THE 12 BEST SECRETS OF CHRISTMAS, MARY: THE MARY TYLER MOORE STORY, TWITCH UPON A STAR, GLAMOUR, GIDGETS AND THE GIRL NEXT DOOR, DASHING, DARING AND DEBONAIR, and NBC & ME: MY LIFE AS A PAGE IN A BOOK, among others. He's also a TV writer/producer, and has worked for Reelz, Bravo, E!, TLC, and hosted THEN AGAIN WITH HERBIE J PILATO, the hit classic TV talk show (which premiered on Amazon Prime in 2019).

Los Angeles, CA

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