History of advertising: No 182: Clara Peller's hamburger

In demanding to know "Where's the beef?", a little old lady called Clara Peller uttered one of the most famous catchphrases to cross from advertising into the vernacular.

More than 30 years after it was first heard in a US TV spot for the Wendy’s hamburger chain, the challenge has been used to call into question everything from substance of an idea to the size of a man’s most intimate part.

And for the diminutive Peller, a onetime manicurist who shot to national fame on the back of the Wendy’s campaign, the slogan netted a small fortune.

Curiously, it was used only for a comparatively short time by Wendy’s. It was simply the punchline of a spot called "Fluffy bun" and was one of the last ads to be created by Cliff Freeman during his time at Dancer Fitzgerald Sample.

The film features an outraged Peller making the immortal comment as she watches two of her elderly friends admiring the bun. It was a non-too-subtle jab at Wendy’s major competitors Burger King and McDonald’s.

Breaking on 10 January 1984, the commercial was an instant hit, leading to licensing deals for "Where’s the beef?" mugs, T-shirts and beach towels.

The campaign is credited with helping increase Wendy’s annual revenue by 31%. The company claimed Peller made $500,000 from the campaign but she disputed this. "I made some money, which is nice for an older person," Peller said. "But Wendy’s made millions because of me."

Peller and Wendy’s fell out when she repeated her catchphrase in a 1985 ad for Campbell’s Prego spaghetti sauce, claiming "I found it. I really found it."

Wendy’s terminated her contract, saying the commercial inferred she found the beef somewhere other than a Wendy’s restaurant. Peller died two years later in Chicago aged 86.

Things you need to know:

  • The "Where’s the beef?" phrase was most famously evoked by 1984 US presidential hopeful Walter Mondale to criticise the lack of substance of Democratic rival Gary Hart.
  • Joe Sedelmaier, the commercial’s director, later said: "If Mondale could have said the line like Clara, he would have been our president." Mondale lost in a landslide to Ronald Reagan.
  • Wendy’s revived the line in 2011 with a campaign through Kaplan Thaler promoting its revamped Single, Double and Triple burgers.
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