Like most major fast food chains, Wendy’s has long relied on innovative advertising to remain competitive with burger behemoth McDonald’s. Before their snarky, irreverent Twitter feed, there was Dave Thomas, the founder of the company, who appeared in ad spots offering unrehearsed sincerity about the quality of his food.
Before Thomas, there was 83-year-old Clara Peller, a manicurist from Chicago, Illinois, who 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.
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 cord with consumers. 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. During the 1984 presidential election, Democratic candidate—and former vice president—Walter Mondale repeated the phrase when questioning a proposal presented by Democratic challenger Gary Hart.
There were conflicting reports about how much Peller earned from her work. For the first commercial, she was said to have made scale, or $317.40 per day, before getting a considerable pay bump for subsequent spots. Wendy’s claimed Peller earned more than $500,000, but Peller disputed that amount.
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.” The spot was for beef-infused pasta sauce and seemed to declare that Peller’s grief over a lack of meat was resolved somewhere other than Wendy’s.
To suggest that there were plentiful sources of beef other than Wendy’s was verboten. The company dropped her as a spokesperson. William Welter, Wendy’s executive vice president of marketing, said that the commercial “infers that Clara found the beef at somewhere other than Wendy’s restaurants. Unfortunately, Clara’s appearance in the ads makes it extremely difficult for her to serve as a credible spokesperson for our products.”
Peller’s attorney, Joel Weisman, insisted the separation was the result of a discussion over Wendy’s using her likeness for merchandising without her permission. Clara Peller masks were handed out during an NFL game and billboards were put up. Weisman had intended to negotiate deals further before Peller was dropped.
Peller passed away in 1987. Her obituary in the Chicago Tribune made note of the fact that Peller, who lived alone in Hyde Park for many years, could often be found having coffee with friends at her neighborhood McDonald’s.