Clara Peller and The Search for Beef

Fast Food Wars!

In the grand scheme of modern history, fast food is a relatively young industry. During the second-half of the 20th century, there a was sudden growth of quick-serve, drive-through restaurants. And the success of McDonald’s innovative franchising strategy led to several imitators. All of them offering quick, low-cost, though not-necessarily healthy, meals.

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By the 1980’s, the fast food industry was ringing up $60 billion in sales. It may be no coincidence that workout videos were all the rage during this time. Staying in shape was more of a challenge, considering all the tempting choices available for the burger-junkie. McDonald’s, of course, remained an unstoppable monster, devouring all in its path like some out-of-control Grimace. But alternative choices such as Roy Rogers, Carl’s Jr. and White Castle had their fans.

The King, The Clown and The Redhead

Burger King stood on top as McDonald’s biggest competitor. Much of their success can be attributed to their early marketing. Their burgers were made using a proprietary flame-broiler to mimic the appetizing look of grilled patties. Their successful “Have It Your Way” campaign reminded customers that they offered burger customization unlike McDonald’s standardized list of pre-determined toppings where any deviation would slow down the line. And like McDonald’s, Burger King recognized the importance of marketing to children with their stable of cartoonishly off-putting characters.

And then there’s Wendy’s. Founded in Columbus, OH in 1969 by Dave Thomas , Wendy’s prioritized the caliber of the beef patty itself over all other gimmicks. Dave was so invested in the quality that he made the patties square. This was so the beef corners could stick out for everyone to marvel over instead of leaving it hidden beneath the bun.

Pointy burgers.

And while they certainly took pride in their ingredients, advertising was not initially part of their growth plan. Their earliest commercial appears to be a local ad from 1976. It was whimsical and terrifying.

It would take until 1977 for Wendy’s to spread the word of Square Patties and Frosties nationally. While these commercials exhibited the light-hearted folksiness that would come to be a running theme in their advertising, they were also unremarkable. At least compared to the efforts of their competitors.

For a short time in the early 80’s, Dave Thomas was the face of the Wendy’s ads. His calm voice was as comforting as the restaurant’s carpeting and old-timey newspaper table decoration. But while his paternal warmth helped make Wendy’s a solid player in the cut-throat fast food game, they still remained well behind the Golden Arches and the Home of the Whopper in both sales and brand recognition.

It would take the impatient bark of a squat octogenarian to make any significant gains on those fronts.

Manicurist Turned Actress

Born in 1902 in Illinois, Clara Peller spent much of her adult life working as a manicurist. As fate would have it, a commercial shoot near her Chicago salon was in need of a manicurist for a bit part. A production assistant picked Clara for the role. Walking onto the shoot, she introduced herself with a gravelly “How Ya doin’, honey.” It was then the commercial’s director, Joe Saidelmaier, knew he discovered someone special.

While working as an advertising art director throughout the 70’s, Joe Sedelmaier noticed something curious about television commercials. The actors were all too perfect. He referred to them as “mannequins”. Sedelmaier wanted to take things in a new direction by casting off-beat personalities in wacky situations. Viewers couldn’t help but pay attention to the spot, not only because it was unlike anything they’ve seen before, but also because they were simply entertaining.

Joe Sedelmaier

Sedelmaier’s eye for quirky talent showed in his 1981 Federal Express spot, featuring Guiness record holder, speed talking John Moschitta. Moschitta definitely stole the show rapidly firing off pages of dialogue in a matter of seconds. But it was Sedelmaier’s direction that created an equally surreal world around him. There were executives who sat and stood in unison, bystanders who were comically nonplussed by the whiplash conversation and a phone system that was willing to withstand the abuse of a crazy-eyed man taking eleven phone calls in 15 seconds. It was an absolutely brilliant ad that collectively earned Sedelmaier and the ad-agency of Ally & Gargano seven Clio awards. It is still recognized as one of the greatest commercials of all time.

Clara Peller was the perfect fit for Sedelmaier’s vision. Her 4 foot 10 stature and frail appearance stood in stark contrast to her booming, raspy voice. Her dialogue was limited due to her emphysema. Also an obstacle was her hearing loss, which necessitated a physical poke or tug by an off-camera stagehand when it was time for her to speak. Nevertheless, her dedication to professionalism and reliability kept her busy. She was quite unique – gruff and cantankerous when she needed to be but welcoming and pleasant off-camera.

Fluffy Bun

Image Credit: Joe Sedelmaier

In late 1983, Joe Sedelmaier was tasked with directing a new ad for Wendy’s entitled “Fluffy Bun”. The original concept involved a young couple who couldn’t help but admire the large buns of their burger. However, upon removing the comically oversized bread, they’d be greeted by a pathetic, unappetizing beef patty.

Sedelmaier convinced Wendy’s to replace the young couple with a pair of sweet old ladies. Then he brought in Clara Peller to act as the “bull in the chinashop”, as he describes it. She was to express her dissatisfaction by loudly proclaiming “Where is all the Beef”.  However, because of her emphysema, she had trouble getting that line out. So it was shortened to simply “Where’s the Beef”.

Where’s the Beef?

The commercial began airing on January 10, 1984. And with Clara bellowing those three words, the 80’s had itself a new catch phrase. America instantly fell in love with the slogan. As hastily as new ads featuring Peller were airing, merchandise featuring her likeness and/or the slogan were churned out. Tee-shirts, towels, stickers, buttons, puzzles, post cards, even a board game and a card game.

But likely the most peculiar promotional item to bear the “Where’s The Beef” slogan was the 7 inch single. The song, written by legendary Tennessee DJ Coyote McCloud, featured samples from Clara Peller’s ads over Coyote’s retelling of the commercial’s plot through some awkward rapping.

The unlikely pairing of radio DJ and elderly burger junkie.

The “Where’s The Beef” slogan was so ubiquitous that Walter Mondale used the phrase during the 1984 spring primaries to criticize his rival, Gary Hart’s, policies. Joe Seidelman joked that had Mondale been able to deliver the line like Clara, he would have been president.

Wendy’s, meanwhile, saw its annual profits increase by an outstanding 31 percent. Clara also benefited from the popular series of commercials. She spent much of 1984 traveling around the country with her daughter Marlene, who also acted as her manager. Numerous television and personal appearances followed. She became an overnight celebrity, greeting fans and meeting important people, including NYC’s mayor Ed Koch.

Clara had a cameo appearance in the 1985 film Moving Violations, the film that was notable for casting the siblings of famous actors in starring roles.

The End of the Beef Search

Clara would later go on to appear in a commercial for Prego spaghetti sauce. It was a simple set-up. Clara sat excitedly in a comfortable chair, beaming over having “finally found it!” While the word “beef” was never uttered, the voice-over’s declaration of ample amounts of beef in Prego’s sauce made it quite evident as to what she was alluding.

Wendy’s was not pleased. The restaurant chain cited a breach in the non-compete clause of her contract. “Clara can only find the beef at one place, Wendy’s”, claimed a company spokesperson. The restaurant ended their relationship with Clara and ceased the “Where’s the Beef” campaign immediately.

Wendy’s knee-jerk reaction to Clara’s Prego commercial had slightly devastating effects. Their momentum came to a sudden halt, losing all the brand-awareness they had earned during the campaign. It would take another five years to regain some recognition, which they had done by once again coaxing founder Dave Thomas back in front of the camera. He remained the face of Wendy’s advertising until his death in 2002.

Life After The Catch Phases

Clara promo photo

Clara was disappointed but never bitter. Though her demand did decrease sharply. Her last appearance was in April, 1986, serving as guest timekeeper for Wrestlemania II. She would pass away a year later, at the age of 85.

Joe Seidelmeier, meanwhile, continued working as a successful commercial director, earning several Clio awards. In April 2016, he was inducted into the American Advertising Federation’s Hall of Fame.

While never surpassing their two biggest competitors in sales, Wendy’s does just fine. They have healthy brand recognition while maintaining a third place standing among fast-food chains. In 2011, they even aired a commercial that took a playful look back at their most popular slogan.

Meanwhile, “Where’s The Beef” became pretty much the go-to reference whenever the topic of 1980’s pop culture comes up. But the words are usually orphaned from the woman who made them famous. It’s a pity since, as Joe Sedelmeier pointed out, Clara’s delivery was half its appeal.

Clara: The Book, The Musical

In 2010, Marlene Necheles penned a biography telling the story of their travels during her mother’s short but memorable time in the limelight. In her book, she described Clara as a voice for the elderly, a group that is all too often overlooked and neglected.

Years later, Marlene teamed up with musician and retro-blogger Geogg Shell to pen a musical based on the Clara Peller story. Entitled, “Clara and The Beef”, the musical details the relationship between Marlene and her mother through song. While it appears they haven’t yet moved forward with production as of the date of this post, you can still visit the website to hear some of the music they’ve written for the show.

But even if the musical doesn’t happen, Clara Peller’s legacy is still quite impressive. Commercials, movies, television appearances, merchandise, Walter Mondale, Wrestlemania. Not a bad way to celebrate your golden years. And all because of three words. An advertising slogan, sure, but words that seem to make a lot of people happy. Most especially, Clara.