Foywonder via YouTube
Foywonder via YouTube

Bad Beef: Remembering Burger King's Infamous "Where's Herb?" Campaign

Foywonder via YouTube
Foywonder via YouTube

For 25 days in the winter of 1986, Jon Menick traveled the country. He would be ushered into a Burger King franchise location by his handlers, loitering until someone recognized his olive-green jacket and high-water pants. He’d wait for them to say hello, at which point he’d stick out his hand and tell them they’d just won $5000.

Menick repeated this process for all 50 states and the District of Columbia. He was appearing in character as Herb, Burger King’s latest pitchman. Aside from his outmoded fashion sense, Herb was notable for being just about the only man in the country who had never eaten a Whopper. Months of print and television ads had teased Herb’s existence; his “family” and “friends” were interviewed, discussing this blight on their existence. The idea of a man who had never succumbed to the pleasures of a grilled fast-service burger was presented as proportionate to a man who had never tasted an orange or experienced a full moon. 

Burger King was certain Herb would help cut into the market share held by their perennial rivals at McDonald’s. And while he was, for a time, one of the most easily identifiable faces on television thanks to that cash reward, he would also prove to be what Advertising Age would later declare the biggest promotional flop of the decade. Recognizing Herb was not quite the same as liking him.

In 1985, McDonald’s saw more than 15 million customers a day, who handed over a total of $9 billion annually for their hamburgers, fries, Happy Meals, and McNuggets. While their advertising budget was substantial, it was only in an effort to retain their incredible 37 percent market share of burger joints. Burger King and Wendy’s, in contrast, had to fight for every scrap left over.

With the merits of their food a subjective discussion, both franchises leaned heavily on ad campaigns to try and pull in more stomachs. Wendy’s hit big with their “Where’s the Beef?” campaign of 1984, in which an elderly woman named Clara seemed disappointed by the lack of meat in the competition’s burgers.

Burger King needed a Clara of their own. Ad agency J. Walter Thompson pitched them on the idea of a man who had committed the mortal sin of never tasting a Whopper. A pariah, he’d be spoken of in hushed tones by his associates. After toying with names like Oscar and Mitch, the agency settled on Herb. “Who’s Herb?” was slated to become the company’s campaign focus for late 1985.

The ad agency began by putting cryptic ads in newspapers that didn’t name Burger King or offer much of a hint of the direction they were taking. “It’s not too late, Herb,” read one; “What are you waiting for, Herb?” read another. In one instance, a man with the same first name who owed money to loan sharks saw the ads and thought he was being personally targeted.

From there, J. Walter Thompson rolled out a series of television spots featuring Herb’s shamed relatives. A kind of viral ad before the concept of viral marketing existed, people began to speculate about Herb: his likes, dislikes, what he looked like, and why he had never delighted his intestines with a Whopper. People who marched into a Burger King and announced “I’m not Herb” could get a burger for 99 cents. Overall store sales spiked by 10 percent.

Though Burger King never openly discussed it, plans were already underway to cast an actor as Herb for phase two of the campaign. After spending two months and $40 million on the ads, America would finally get to see the real thing.

A trained stage performer, Jon Menick was plucked out of a pool of 75 actors to portray the character in ad spots that would debut with the January 1986 Super Bowl. Menick traveled to Wisconsin on Burger King’s dime to visit a cheese factory and “find” Herb’s essence. MTV agreed to let him be a guest VJ for a day. He earned a spot as guest timekeeper for WrestleMania 2. After months of going incognito, Herb would be everywhere.

When he debuted during Super Bowl XX, there was a collective sigh of disappointment. Herb was a nerd who didn’t appear to possess many charming qualities. During a “press conference,” he admitted he tried a burger at Burger King and loved it. It wasn't exactly a startling plot twist. Two months of pent-up curiosity resulted in a mass exodus of interest on the part of burger aficionados.

Burger King leaned on bribery, offering a $5000 reward for anyone who spotted Menick-as-Herb during his nationwide tour. (Local franchisees could kick in more if they wanted: some witnesses scored $10,000.) But the chain suffered further criticism when a series of episodes involving underage winners undermined their generosity. To discourage kids from cutting class to brood in Burger Kings all day waiting for Herb to show, the company insisted on a minimum age of 16 for winners.

One adolescent, Jason Hallman of Alabama, was 15 when he spotted Herb in March 1986. Burger King gave his 16-year-old friend the $5000 instead. Hallman’s parents complained, with the Alabama state senate weighing in. They labeled Burger King’s actions as approaching “consumer fraud” because they had failed to make the age minimum a prominent part of the rules. Another juvenile disqualified from the prize in Reno was awarded the $5000 by the local operator.

That May, Burger King ended any further mention of Herb, turning their advertising focus to “real people” who enjoyed their menu items. Then-company president Jay Darling admitted Herb “did not work nearly as well” as he had expected.

The following year, patrons were no longer on the hunt for Herb, but falling over themselves to locate a far more popular attraction. Burger King had just shipped eight million ALF puppets to stores.

Photo Illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. All images, iStock
The Pom-Pom Hit: When Texas Was Struck By a Cheerleader Mom's Murder Plot
Photo Illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. All images, iStock
Photo Illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. All images, iStock

On a January morning in 1991, Wanda Holloway was faced with a decision: Realizing that she couldn't afford two murders, the 36-year-old married mother of two had to decide whether to order the killing of her rival, Verna Heath, or Verna’s 13-year-old daughter, Amber.

It was a toss-up as to who presented the bigger problem to Holloway. Amber was an eighth-grader who had the talent and poise to consistently knock out Holloway’s daughter, Shanna, from a spot on their school’s cheerleading squad in Channelview, Texas; yet Verna was the one who pushed Amber, getting her into gymnastics and even being so bold as to let Amber try out for the junior high cheerleading squad before she had even formally enrolled in school.

Killing Amber would guarantee Shanna a berth to cheerleading stardom. But there was a problem: Holloway's ex-brother-in-law, Terry Harper—whom she enlisted to help her carry out her plan—said the man he knew who would accept the assignment wanted $5000 to kill a minor. Bumping off Verna would be a comparatively reasonable $2500.

In a perfect world, $7500 would get rid of them both, but Holloway simply didn’t have the money. So she decided it would be Verna. In addition to being cheaper, she figured Amber would be so devastated by her mother’s death that she couldn’t possibly get through cheerleader tryouts that March.

On January 28th, after dropping Shanna off at church, Wanda met with Harper to give him her diamond earrings as a down payment. Within a matter of days, she would make national headlines as the mother who would do anything for her daughter. Even if it meant life in prison.


A suburb of Houston, Holloway's hometown of Channelview, Texas sits in a state where football fields are considered holy ground and small town players are revered for their athletic prowess. Boys were expected to suit up if they wanted social status; girls could obtain a measure of popularity along the sidelines as cheerleaders. In both cases, the fitness and discipline required could help provide a foundation for a transition out of adolescence.

As a young woman, Wanda Holloway wanted to join that clique. Her father, a conservative Baptist, vetoed the idea. The costumes were too revealing, he said, too sexualized. Reporters would later seize on this detail and use it to craft a kind of super-villain origin story for Holloway—a woman who was determined to see her own daughter succeed where she hadn’t.

Holloway remained in Channelview and, in 1972, married railroad warehouse employee Tony Harper. They had two children: Shane in 1973 and Shanna in 1977. She divorced Harper in 1980, remarrying twice and retaining custody of the kids.

As Shanna grew older and grade school activities increased, Holloway was determined that her daughter would enjoy some of the opportunities her own father had denied her. She urged Shanna to try out for the seventh-grade cheerleading squad; though Shanna didn’t feel as passionately about the team as her mother did, she tried her best but didn’t make the cut as three girls were vying for two open slots. It was apparently vexing to Holloway that one of the girls who made the team didn’t even attend Alice Johnson Junior High during tryouts: She was still transitioning from a private school. That student was Amber Heath.

Amber and Shanna had purportedly been friends, even having sleepovers at each other’s homes. But Holloway perceived both Amber and her ambitious mother, Verna, as obstacles to Shanna’s progress in cheerleading. Verna had printed flyers and handed out candy during that seventh-grade coup. The next year, Holloway decided to make an offensive move and passed out rulers and pencils that urged Shanna’s classmates to vote her into the squad: “Vote for Shanna Harper for Cheerleader.”

The vice principal intervened, saying such campaigning was against school rules. (Verna's flyers had somehow skirted any penalty.) When Holloway ignored him, parents of other cheerleader candidates—Verna included—held a meeting and voted to disqualify Shanna from being in the running. Shanna was now 0-2, and Verna had made it personal.

As tryouts loomed for ninth grade in 1991, Holloway decided she couldn’t take any more chances with the Heaths. She approached Terry Harper, her first husband’s brother, the one man she knew with some slightly delinquent criminal tendencies. Harper had been arrested a few times on misdemeanor charges. To the best of anyone’s knowledge, he didn’t travel in the kinds of circles where he might know any hitmen. But Holloway seemed convinced that Harper had the connections to make Verna and Amber go away.

Harper would later tell police that he brushed off Holloway’s solicitations but she was persistent. Realizing she was serious, he went to the sheriff’s department, where officers expressed the same initial skepticism. Murder-for-hires didn’t happen in Channelview. When Harper insisted, they wired him with a microphone so he could continue his dialogue with Holloway.

In six separate recorded conversations, Harper found Holloway hard to pin down when it came to an explicit admission of her desire to have Verna murdered.

“You want her dead?” Harper asked.

“I don’t care what you do with her,” Holloway replied. “You can keep her in Cuba for 15 years. I want her gone.”

Semantics aside, Holloway’s intent was clear. Days after she handed over her down payment to Harper for the (fictional) assassin, police arrested Holloway for solicitation of capital murder. Investigators would later remark that Holloway seemed unfazed by the charge.

Out on bail, she told Shanna what she was facing: a potential verdict of life in prison. Although Shanna knew her mother wanted desperately to see her on the team—much more than Shanna herself cared to—she had no idea the rivalry with Verna had escalated to potential homicide. And despite the wishes of her biological father, Shanna remained at Alice Johnson High, avoiding eye contact with Amber Heath practically every day.


Holloway was arraigned in February 1991, and pled not guilty. Her defense was that the plot had been cooked up by her ex-husband, Tony Harper, and his brother in order for Tony to secure custody of their kids. Her desire to see Verna “gone,” she argued, was simply a joke.

The jury wasn’t laughing. In September 1991, it took them just two and a half hours to find Holloway guilty and sentence her to 15 years in prison—“poetic justice,” as one juror later put it, for wishing Verna would be exiled to Cuba for the same length of time.

Poetic or not, Holloway didn’t do 15 years—or even 15 months. She was granted a new trial in November of that year and the verdict was overturned on appeal in 1996 after it was discovered one of the jurors had been on probation for a drug possession charge and shouldn’t have been serving. Rather than fund another trial, Harris County prosecutors allowed Holloway a plea bargain where she received 10 years but ultimately served only six months in a work camp pulling weeds before being released on probation.

The last time a journalist caught up with Shanna was in 2012, when the then-34-year-old teacher discussed raising her own two children and having an infamous mother with a reporter from People. Living in Humble, Texas, she said she still saw Wanda on a regular basis, although the two rarely discussed the murder plot. Shanna asked about it back in 2010. Holloway called the entire incident a “mistake” and said that she was “sorry.”

When Wanda's future as a free woman was still up in the air, Alice Johnson High went ahead with cheerleader tryouts on March 22, 1991. Amber appeared and made the cut. Shanna did not. She was too distraught to show up.

GunsNRosesVEVO via YouTube
When 'November Rain' Excited, Confused Rock Fans
GunsNRosesVEVO via YouTube
GunsNRosesVEVO via YouTube

Slash had no idea what it was about. Axl Rose insisted it be based on a short story. At roughly nine minutes, it stretched the patience of MTV’s viewers. For these reasons—or maybe in spite of them—the music video for the Guns N’ Roses hit “November Rain” remains one of the most infamous, impenetrable rock operas of all time.

“November Rain” was a single from the group’s Use Your Illusion I album. Released in 1991, it broke into the Billboard top 10 and immediately entered music trivia lore as the longest song to make that list. Rose had started writing it in 1983, with an original running time of more than 20 minutes.

For the video, which was released in February of 1992, the group hired director Andy Morahan, who had supervised two previous G N' R efforts: Don’t Cry and You Could Be Mine. Rose also enlisted friend and writer Del James to allow them to loosely adapt one of his short stories, “Without You,” about a singer haunted by the death of his girlfriend. Model Stephanie Seymour, Rose’s girlfriend at the time, played the bride.

The crew respected the band’s wishes for an increasingly epic approach to their videos by going on location to shoot a wedding ceremony between Rose and Seymour at a makeshift church in a New Mexico desert—fabricating it cost $150,000—and arranging for a concert shoot with 1500 extras; Slash’s guitar solo was covered with swooping helicopter shots.

Speaking with authors Rob Tannenbaum and Craig Marks, Morahan described the indulgent nature of the era: “You’ve got five cameras, cranes, helicopter, this big crew.” He recalled one observer asking him, “Is this the whole video? ‘No, it’s about 27 seconds of it.’” (The video cost a then-record $1.5 million.)

Though Seymour’s character appears to be elated at the reception, the video implies she commits suicide shortly after.  

The couple in happier times.

GunsNRoses VEVO via YouTube

Or not. No one really seems to know what happened. “To tell you the truth, I have no idea," Slash told The Huffington Post in 2014. It was a concept. The song itself is pretty self-explanatory, but the video is so complex ... I knew there was a wedding in there somewhere and I was not into the concept of the wedding." Morahan said he has "no idea" why Seymour was shot in a casket with half her face obscured by a mirror.

While the spot wasn’t heaped with MTV Video Music Awards praise (though it did win one, for Best Cinematography, and earn a nomination for Best Art Direction), it has aged well. By the end of 1992, viewers had voted it their favorite video of the year. Morahan, James, and Rose were even asked to collaborate on an episode of HBO’s Tales From the Crypt.

That didn’t come to pass. But even today, November Rain stands as one of the most-played music videos of the 20th century on YouTube, with more than 940 million views. Watch it enough, and maybe it’ll begin to make sense.


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