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.

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Meester X, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0
'Eat Lead!': When Activists Hacked Talking Barbie
Meester X, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0
Meester X, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

With his familiar green fatigues and grenade clipped to his chest, G.I. Joe platoon leader Duke appeared carved from granite, not plastic. The 12-inch action figure was part of Hasbro’s Hall of Fame series, a premium-format figure released in 1993. Press his chest and the military specialist’s voice box would be activated, allowing Duke to shout a series of commands or threats.

But for a number of boys who unwrapped him on Christmas Day 1993, Duke appeared to be in no mood for conflict. When pressed to speak, he would instead exclaim, “Let’s go shopping!”

At the same time, parents who had gifted their children Mattel’s Teen Talk Barbie—which was also equipped with a voice chip—were equally confused. Instead of talking about clothes or Corvettes, the Barbies sounded like they had been gargling gravel. “Eat lead, Cobra!” shouted one. “Vengeance is mine!”

Families were not amused: The dolls weren't cheap—each had a $40 to $50 price tag. After examining the box for any signs of tampering, some parents came across a small leaflet that helped explain the toys’ out-of-character speeches. A group calling themselves the Barbie Liberation Organization was taking responsibility for the switch. The goal of their stunt was to reframe the conversation over gender roles in America.

 
 

Since she first hit shelves in 1959, Barbie has transcended her boxed-in identity as mere toy store inventory to become an avatar for girls looking for a role model. (At one point, the doll received 20,000 fan letters a week.) The size of her waist, her job skills, her Malibu beach house—all of it has been commandeered by social anthropologists looking to see whether her influence is enriching young girls' lives or offering dispiriting, stereotyped notions of femininity.

That debate took a turn for the worse in 1992, when Mattel released a teenaged variation of the doll that exclaimed “math class is tough!” Women’s groups were outraged, believing that Barbie was falling victim to harmful tropes that put a ceiling on both her intellect and that of her pre-teen consumers.

Though the phrase was just one of 270 the doll could utter at random—others included “I love school, don’t you?”—it received the brunt of media attention, including demands to recall the dolls. (Mattel apologized, but did not pull the dolls off shelves.)

The debate over whether Barbie had social responsibilities caught the attention of Igor Vamos, a student of visual arts at the University of California, San Diego. Vamos was intrigued by the idea of “cultural jamming,” a kind of analog hacking that upended conventional ideas to create controversy. If Barbie taught passivity and sexism with her complaints of math being hard, then perhaps she should be given a different script.

Vamos bought several dozen Teen Talk Barbies and Talking Duke figures from toy stores in California and New York. He and several other “operatives” dismantled the toys, performing a crude surgery that allowed them to switch the voice boxes buried in their bodies. Volunteers would use a knife to cut into the dolls' plastic skin, then modify the transistor of the Joe’s voice chip so it would fit into Barbie’s comparatively slimmer torso.

A screenshot of a G.I. Joe Talking Duke figure

21solo, YouTube

After repackaging the dolls, the team “shop-dropped,” surreptitiously restocking them on toy shelves in Albany, San Diego, and Walnut Creek, California. Each box had a piece of paper encouraging disgruntled parents to reach out to the media after discovering the toys weren’t gender-conforming. To speed things along, they also told friends to buy the dolls and make the calls. Then they waited.

Within weeks, adults confused by their child’s new toys did exactly what the B.L.O. suggested, telling local news affiliates that their Barbie was shouting attack commands and informing kids that “dead men tell no lies.” Duke, meanwhile, rebuffed war strategy, preferring to “plan our dream wedding.”

The ensuing media coverage is exactly what Vamos was hoping for. Calling the toys' gender roles “stone-aged,” the B.L.O. claimed responsibility, stayed anonymous, and hoped it would cause consumers to rethink the propagation of violence by male toys and the relatively vacuous ambitions of Barbie.

"Obviously, our goal is to get media attention,” a B.L.O. spokesperson told The New York Times. “We are trying to make a statement about the way toys can encourage negative behavior in children, particularly given rising acts of violence and sexism."

Vamos even supervised production of a video that used Barbie to spell out their mission. “They build us in a way that perpetuates gender-based stereotypes,” the toy said. “Those stereotypes have a negative effect on children’s development.”

 
 

While most considered the act harmless—the toys could, after all, be exchanged for an unadulterated version—not everyone believed the B.L.O.’s mission played fair. "I've got a very strong negative feeling about terrorist acts against children, no matter how noble the motives," Joanne Oppenheim, a toy industry advocate, told the Times. “It's a cheap shot, and it's unfair to the kids.” Others protested the general idea of product tampering.

Mattel and Hasbro were less rattled. Wayne Charness, then-vice president of Hasbro, called it “kind of ridiculous,” while Mattel refrained from commenting. Though the B.L.O. claimed to have tampered with hundreds of toys in 43 different states, the truth was that Vamos and his team had performed surgery on roughly 120 toys. But the media perpetuated the story, making it seem as though the stunt was pervasive.

The story died down after the holidays. The tampered toys were either returned or bought and discarded. Vamos kept his role in the stunt largely under wraps until years later, when he became a part of The Yes Men, a social disruption performance group, under the alias Mike Bonanno. Vamos is now a professor of media arts at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York.

Was the stunt effective? Anecdotally, maybe. Media outlets like Ohio's Akron Beacon Journal profiled kids and parents who had been affected by the switch, including 7-year-old Zach, the recipient of a Barbie-possessed Duke. Asked if he wanted to return the toy, Zach said no: “He’s teaching me not to fight.”

Were kids really influenced by the toys to rethink gender portrayals, or were they yet another example of the B.L.O. manipulating the media by using an undercover operative to articulate their message? If Barbie knows, she isn't talking. 

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iStock
Fizzled Out: Why Coca-Cola Purposely Designed a Soft Drink to Fail
iStock
iStock

In December 1992, media outlets from around the country filed into the Hayden Planetarium at New York City's American Museum of Natural History for what soft drink giant Coca-Cola was trumpeting as a “truly out-of-this-world experience.” In front of reporters, the company's North American president, Doug Ivester, unveiled a 16-ounce silver can that he hoped would change the landscape of soda.

The product was Tab Clear, a new version of the sugar- and calorie-free diet drink first introduced in 1963. While it retained its bubbles, the liquid was transparent, an obvious nod to rival Pepsi’s introduction of Crystal Pepsi earlier that year.

Publicly, Ivester boasted that Tab Clear would be yet another success in Coca-Cola’s long history of refreshment dominance. But behind the scenes, Ivester and chief marketing officer Sergio Zyman were convinced Tab Clear would be a failure—and that is exactly what they hoped would happen. Flying in the face of convention, the launch of Tab Clear was deliberately designed to self-destruct.

 
 

In the early 1990s, beverage manufacturers were heavily preoccupied with the idea of clear drinks that communicated a sense of wellness. The Coors company even produced a clear alcoholic malt beverage, Zima, to capitalize on the craze, but porting it over to the soft drink market was nothing new. In the 1940s, Soviet leader Georgy Zhukov used his friendly relationship with the U.S. to make an appeal for Coca-Cola to produce a clear version of their drink so he could enjoy it surreptitiously and without being accused of indulging in a capitalist product; the soda maker removed the caramel from the recipe, which essentially de-pigmented it. Coca-Cola also produced Sprite, a fizzy, lemon-tinged drink that didn’t use coloring.

But it wasn’t until Pepsi unveiled Crystal Pepsi in 1992 that marketing departments began to pay close attention to transparency in their product. Crystal Pepsi was essentially a fruit-flavored variation of regular Pepsi, with all the typical amounts of sugar and calories but no caffeine. That light could pass through the beverage was a novelty, albeit one that Pepsi believed could help them carve out a 2 percent slice of the $48 billion soft drink market. And if Pepsi could do that, it would mean less money for Coca-Cola.

Like a boxer preparing a counter-attack, Coke couldn’t simply sit back and allow Pepsi to strike without retaliation. But few within the company were sold on the longevity of the clear soda craze. Worse, the company had stumbled badly with New Coke in 1985, a new formula intended to replace the classic version that drew public criticism and created a public relations disaster. Tempting fate with a Clear Coke was out of the question.

Zyman had the answer. Before coming to Coke, Zyman had been a director of sales and marketing for Pepsi; he defected to Coca-Cola just in time for the highly successful launch of Diet Coke in 1982. After a sabbatical, Zyman—a notoriously combative executive who earned the nickname the “Aya-Cola” for his management style—returned as chief marketing officer and devised an ingenious plan to stifle Crystal Pepsi without risking the reputation of Coca-Cola Classic. His sacrificial pawn would be Tab.

Sometimes stylized as “TaB," the drink had been introduced in 1963 as an alternative for calorie-conscious consumers. Sold in a pink can, it was targeted specifically at women concerned about their weight and marketed as a solution to increase sex appeal. Tab, ads claimed, could help consumers “be a shape he won’t forget … Tab can help you stay in his mind.”

With Diet Coke available to help keep marriages from crumbling, Tab was relegated to an afterthought, falling from 4 percent of Coke's overall market share to just 1 percent. Zyman believed it was expendable. If Tab Clear happened to catch on, fine. If it didn’t, the failure wouldn’t reflect poorly on the Coke brand.

But Zyman wasn’t content to simply try to compete with Crystal Pepsi. In his mind, Tab Clear was what consumer brands refer to as a “kamikaze effort,” a product expected to fail. Zyman believed that the presence of Tab Clear on shelves would confuse consumers into believing Crystal Pepsi was a diet drink. (It wasn’t, though there was a Diet Crystal Pepsi version available.) By blurring the lines and confusing consumers who wanted either a calorie-free drink or a full-bodied indulgence, Zyman expected Tab Clear to be a dud and bring Crystal Pepsi down right along with it.

“It was a suicidal mission from day one,” Zyman told author Stephen Denny for his 2011 business book, Killing Giants. “Pepsi spent an enormous amount of money on the [Crystal Pepsi] brand and, regardless, we killed it.”

 
 

With Pepsi set for a massive ad spend on the January 1993 Super Bowl, Coke rolled out Tab Clear in 10 cities, with national expansion coming mid-year. Their ad spending was minimal. Coca-Cola made just enough noise to reposition Crystal Pepsi from a hot, trendy new drink to a product with an identity crisis.

“They were going to basically say it was a mainstream drink,” Zyman said. "'This is like a cola, but it doesn’t have any color. It has all this great taste.' And we said, 'No, Crystal Pepsi is actually a diet drink.' Even though it wasn’t. Because Tab had the attributes of diet, which was its demise. That was its problem. It was perceived to be a medicinal drink. Within three to five months, Tab Clear was dead. And so was Crystal Pepsi.”

The dissolution of soda products on shelves is not inherently dramatic, and there was no visceral evidence on display that Tab Clear was flailing. But by the end of 1993, Zyman’s prediction had come true. Crystal Pepsi had grabbed just 0.5 percent of the market, a quarter of Pepsi's prediction. Both Tab Clear and Crystal Pepsi were phased out and Coke was happy to write the dual obituary. “Now both Tab Clear and Crystal Pepsi are about to die,” Coca-Cola chairman Roberto Goizueta told Ad Week in November 1993.

But it was Pepsi that had spent millions in development and $40 million in marketing; it took the company 18 months to formulate their failure. Coke spent just two months on Tab Clear. It was a barnacle that dragged its far more ambitious rival down with it.

Zyman continued to work for Coca-Cola through 1998. Clear products never caught on as some companies anticipated, though they do experience periodic revivals. Zima returned to shelves in 2017, and Crystal Pepsi has had promotional comebacks.

In one final twist, and despite Ivester's earlier declaration that Clear Coke would never see the light of day, the company’s Japanese arm released a zero-calorie Coca-Cola Clear in the country on June 11. This time, they might even want it to succeed.

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