Where's Herb?
September 26, 2015 2:20 PM   Subscribe

Here's an old Burger King ad campaign, created by New York firm J Walter Thompson, that was a legendary flop. 30 years ago Burger King failed to get the whole country asking: Where's Herb? He was supposedly the only person in the country not to have had a burger from their chain. They offered food discounts, but only to people who weren't Herb (weird cameo at the end of that one). They even talked to Herb's parents. Eventually Herb did have a burger and visited a BK in every state as part of a contest. The sites Go Retro and Burgatory have articles about the non-phenomenon (with an interview with Jon Menick, who played Herb). It was all an attempt to duplicate Wendy's success the year before with Where's The Beef?

People actually seemed to care about these kinds of things back then.
posted by JHarris (43 comments total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
 
"Aren't you hungry for burger king, Herb?".

No.

Good ol' Betteridge's law.
posted by parki at 2:31 PM on September 26, 2015 [1 favorite]


The voice over in the 1st video pronounces burger like the This is my Milwaulkee guy says hamBURger, therefore meets with my approval.
posted by morganw at 2:32 PM on September 26, 2015 [1 favorite]


I remember these. BK has a history of dropping an off-kilter campaign every now and then. Even if they flop in ultimate terms, they do a reasonably good job of cutting through the noise.
posted by Thorzdad at 2:37 PM on September 26, 2015 [1 favorite]


So did he ever post part 3 of the interview? (the site index only has two parts, and google wasn't helpful)
posted by effbot at 2:38 PM on September 26, 2015


I remember this, but I guess I had forgotten it was that long ago, because it feels like something more in tune with the early years of the web than the mid-1980s. In fact ,I think if they were to try this campaign now, with so many people uploading photos and videos, it would go over a lot better.
posted by briank at 2:44 PM on September 26, 2015 [1 favorite]


I was at U of Colorado at the time, and the university's president, Gordon Gee, was an Herb doppleganger, and was often accosted by people seeking the reward.
posted by Schmucko at 2:49 PM on September 26, 2015 [7 favorites]


As near as I could tell effbot, no. The article went up in 2009 and Burgatory seems to have stopped updating in 2011.
posted by JHarris at 2:53 PM on September 26, 2015


I had a Where's Herb t-shirt as a kid, and I turned out okay.
posted by bstreep at 3:22 PM on September 26, 2015 [6 favorites]


If you're still posting their crappy ads to MetaFilter in 2015, I guess we could say they were playing the long game. Successfully!
posted by Wolfdog at 3:48 PM on September 26, 2015 [4 favorites]


Certainly no worse than any of the current burger wars ads, with Carls Jr/Hardee's constantly trying to outdo itself in back-to-the-80s sex-object awfulness and Sonic beating its stupid "two regular guys" campaign into the ground.
posted by blucevalo at 4:06 PM on September 26, 2015 [1 favorite]


Don't forget Soviet Fashion Show. Wendy's was on fire back then.
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 4:21 PM on September 26, 2015 [6 favorites]


> “Herbs” (a nickname for geeks/nerds/other undesirables)

Nah. "Herb" was slang for pot. Nothing else.
posted by ardgedee at 4:35 PM on September 26, 2015


Herb is in Asheville NC.
posted by daniel9223 at 5:18 PM on September 26, 2015 [1 favorite]


> “Herbs” (a nickname for geeks/nerds/other undesirables)

Nah. "Herb" was slang for pot. Nothing else.


Don't be a Herbert.
posted by ChurchHatesTucker at 5:51 PM on September 26, 2015 [2 favorites]


I wonder if Herb and the Noid ever hang out?
posted by The Card Cheat at 5:51 PM on September 26, 2015 [8 favorites]


People actually seemed to care about these kinds of things back then.

In 1985, when the Herb ads came out, nearly half of the country was watching one of the three networks on any given night, and these ads were on each of them. Across time, the vast majority of Americans saw one of these Herb ads any given week.

These days, it's just not like that. There are 500+ channels with different demographics and advertisers for different shows, there are different ads on Hulu or Youtube than on network TV, and many of us watch Netflix with no ads at all. Unless something goes viral, where people feel the need to deliberately share the ad, there's increasingly little shared experience of advertising.

Nobody (except maybe the management of Burger King) cared deeply about these ads. But virtually everybody was subject to them, and so they are remembered - and were a topic of conversation or a cultural touchstone or newsworthy - merely because of their ubiquity.
posted by eschatfische at 6:11 PM on September 26, 2015 [15 favorites]


Where's Herb? Who's Bob? What do you mean, Barq's has bite?
posted by Fuzzy Monster at 7:38 PM on September 26, 2015 [3 favorites]


I've never had a burger from Burger King.
(My name isn't Herb, though)

(Last time I was in Burger King as a kid, I was all about the Chicken Sandwich. Cut on the diagonal, please, and served in a cardboard container)
posted by madajb at 12:04 AM on September 27, 2015 [2 favorites]


My first job was at Burger King, back in 1987. I was 14. I vaguely remember that at my job interview, I made a joke or offhand remark about 'Herb' and the store manager had no idea what I was talking about.
posted by sevenyearlurk at 12:24 AM on September 27, 2015 [6 favorites]


Didn't McDonald's run a very similar campaign, starring a guy who'd never had a Big Mac? Am I just imagining that (or misremembering Herb)?
posted by roll truck roll at 12:30 AM on September 27, 2015


Burger Kings and the areas around them smell awful, like cooking rotten death. Subway's weird oder has nothing on BK's.
posted by item at 5:16 AM on September 27, 2015 [4 favorites]


I was going to mention the Bob ads too - they were much more successful IMHO - at least everyone I knew at the time did :) The Herb ads seem over designed.
posted by Calzephyr at 5:19 AM on September 27, 2015 [1 favorite]


I don't really remember these, though I must have seen them.

The articles link them mainly to a defensive response to "Where's the Beef," but there are at least a couple of other cultural streams feeding in here. They certainly partake of an ironically faux-folksly rhetorical mode of the time, exemplified also in the Pepperidge Farm remembers and Bartles and Jaymes campaigns and in the TV show Newhart. The "find Herb" component also reminds me of another '80s trope, sort of a precursor to online alternate reality gaming, the vast quest/contest like Treasure: In Search of the Golden Horse or Money Hunt: The Mystery of the Missing Link..

In general, I wonder if the approach of attempting to bridge TV commercials and real life came up partly in response to the anxiety created by Gerald Tellis' 1984 analysis of the effectiveness of TV ads - his research suggested TV ads had almost no effect on consumer behavior. This also makes me wonder when businesses started having the kinds of campaigns that linked TV (or radio) ads and behavior in the store - for instance, saying "I'm not Herb" at the counter, or saying any other catchphrase they suggest, in order to get an incentive.

As to why "where's the beef" succeeded and 'where's Herb" failed, I think that when catchphrases suggested by ads catch on, it's because they capture some larger social phenomenon which the catchphrase can be slangily used to stand in for. So "Where's the beef!" was immediately applied to Emperor's-new-clothes situations as a way of saying "there's nothing there; I'm too smart for a snow job; I'm disappointed by the emptiness of your offering." I was just thinking about this with other catchphrases, like "time to make the donuts," which immediately expands from being about a Dunkin Donuts manager getting up every morning to being the resigned utterance of everyone who needs to start some important activity but is reluctant to switch gears, or "Just Do It!" which has become a generalized rallying cry. The phrases stuck because they said something people needed to say anyway, and gave them an updated, referential, clever way to do it. At the same time, that might be a lousy argument, because had "Where's Herb" succeeded, I could see trotting it out every time that annoying manager was late for a meeting like he always is, or when somebody left a mess someplace and took off. Maybe the fault was in the execution - Herb as a character wasn't interesting or likable or memorable; the anticipation-building was good, but when they finally introduced him, he wasn't someone that would really inspire people to go looking for him. Who knows, though. It's fascinating to look closely at something that didn't catch on and think about why.
posted by Miko at 5:45 AM on September 27, 2015 [13 favorites]


This also makes me wonder when businesses started having the kinds of campaigns that linked TV (or radio) ads and behavior in the store.
Well, that made me think of this:
In 1907, Will Keith Kellogg promoted Kellogg's Corn Flakes with the Wink Day campaign. Ladies were encouraged to "wink [at] your grocer and see what you get". What the ladies got was a full-scale male prostitution ring that baffled police... joking... kidding... they got a box of Corn Flakes.
posted by Wolfdog at 5:59 AM on September 27, 2015 [3 favorites]


In 1907, Will Keith Kellogg promoted Kellogg's Corn Flakes with the Wink Day campaign

This must have just been to piss off his brother John, a sex abstainer who developed Corn Flakes as an anti-masturbatory treatment (this is true).
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 6:54 AM on September 27, 2015 [6 favorites]


Back when these ads were out, my parents were subjected to a neighborhood party to celebrate the birthday of a guy named Herb. The hostess (Herb's wife) thought it would be hi-LAR-i-ous if she made everyone wear custom-made "I'm not Herb!" t-shirts to the event, and then made a big deal out of them in front of the birthday boy.

I just picture everyone standing around forcing out pained chuckles over this, and poor Herb himself trying to perform a semi-convincing "oh, you!" for his wife, and it remains one of the most deliciously cringeworthy parties I have personally known about.
posted by DingoMutt at 8:36 AM on September 27, 2015 [1 favorite]


This must have just been to piss off his brother John, a sex abstainer who developed Corn Flakes as an anti-masturbatory treatment (this is true).

He'd already pissed off his older brother the year before by spinning off his own company and adding sugar to the mass-marketed flakes, so this was probably just more of the same.

(they never reconciled, iiuc -- the elder tried to make amends shortly before his death, but his secretary never mailed the apology he'd written.)
posted by effbot at 8:53 AM on September 27, 2015 [2 favorites]


I was at U of Colorado at the time, and the university's president, Gordon Gee, was an Herb doppleganger, and was often accosted by people seeking the reward.

I remember one of the television stations in Hartford (CT) doing a story about local people who sort of looked like Herb.
posted by dances with hamsters at 9:54 AM on September 27, 2015


I remember a kid in Queens, around 2007 or so, bumming a smoke off me, referring to Carson Daly as a 'herb.' He musta picked it up from his older brother or something.
posted by jonmc at 11:09 AM on September 27, 2015


Pepperidge Farm remembers

I spent a few summers working in one of their factories. There were a lot of workers missing fingers, so we used to say "Pepperidge Fahm Dismembers!"
posted by jonmc at 11:16 AM on September 27, 2015 [4 favorites]


Didn't McDonald's run a very similar campaign, starring a guy who'd never had a Big Mac?

No, they didn't. And the reason I know is, I'm that guy. Actually, this was the time-period when they were marketing the best burger they ever sold, the McD LT (SLYT ad featuring proto-George Castanza).
posted by Rash at 1:53 PM on September 27, 2015 [2 favorites]


I spent a few summers working in one of their factories. There were a lot of workers missing fingers, so we used to say "Pepperidge Fahm Dismembers!"

This is hilarious!
posted by JHarris at 2:28 PM on September 27, 2015


I'm considering another post about old discontinued fast food like the McDLT and the (late, lamented) Arch Deluxe.
posted by JHarris at 2:30 PM on September 27, 2015 [3 favorites]


JHarris, I vaguely remember a link (I think at Fark, waaay back) to a site call "Fast Food Graveyard" or something like that, where they had articles and pictures of all kinds of discontinued fast food items.
posted by jonmc at 2:47 PM on September 27, 2015 [1 favorite]


I'm not sure what to think of their latest offering.
posted by TedW at 6:10 PM on September 27, 2015


the best burger they ever sold, the McD LT

Preach. It was like an artisanal Big Mac.
posted by ChurchHatesTucker at 6:46 PM on September 27, 2015 [3 favorites]


Burger King has always squicked me out. Something tastes off to me about their food, and I've only had it on the road when absolutely nothing else was available - and once, near the Queensland outback, that was it for miles and miles. Even as "Hungry Jack's", I thought it was dreadful.

But like the man says in the article, the regional chains were the original for my age group. I didn't have any Burger King food until college, and I thought it was awful from jump. My favorite burger places back in the day was neither Wendy's nor McDonald's (even though I worked at Mickey D's); they were George Webb and the indy Greek diner down the road from my high school. My fave burger chain now is Shake Shack, which I can only eat once in a blue moon now (thanks, impaired glucose!)

At my McDonald's as I recall, no one ordered the McDLT to go. It was too awkward to transport or eat with one hand in the car. People who ordered to stay were more likely to get it.

And we indeed, in my teenage '80s (way) lower-class black neighborhood, called boys and men perceived to be "corny m-f's" Herbs. In our minds, "herb" as slang for marijuana was only said by old folks who went around like Antonio Fargas just getting out of jail in "I'm Gonna Git You, Sucka!"

Oh, man, TJ and Dave do Sonic commercials!? I'm happy for them that it appears to be a steady gig, yet disappointed that the American entertainment industry cannot make the most out of these improv legends.
posted by droplet at 7:20 PM on September 27, 2015 [2 favorites]


Oddly, since it doesn't seem popular in this thread, I've always far preferred BK to McD's, partly because their burgers seem to be made of recognizable meat, and the flame-grilled smell is nice. It always seemed a teensy notch more real-food-y to me. But I agree that the McDLT was the closest McDs ever got to creating an edible sandwich, and then they scrapped it - which is probably OK, since it relied on an enormous styro container to achieve the "hot side hot, cool side cool" effect.
posted by Miko at 7:58 PM on September 27, 2015 [2 favorites]


The McDLT had a fatal flaw: they put the cheese on the cold side. Cheese on a burger is supposed to be melted on the burger.
posted by Daily Alice at 9:03 PM on September 27, 2015 [3 favorites]


So McDLT is basically a Big N’ Tasty delivered in two parts?

This thread made me discover that my local McD is currently offering something called "Maestro" with Fourme d'Ambert (french blue cheese) or Gruyere. Might have to visit for the first time in ages.

(And googling for Maestro made me discover that McDonalds Sweden is now offering table reservations with a fixed 2-course menu. That's a bit on the silly side. )
posted by effbot at 5:05 AM on September 28, 2015 [1 favorite]


Herb will not capitulate.
posted by grumpybear69 at 6:24 AM on September 28, 2015


I totally forgot Burger Kind used to serve Pepsi!
posted by synthetik at 12:51 PM on September 28, 2015


McDonalds Sweden is now offering table reservations
On Valentine's Day around here White Castle used to offer [maybe still does; we no longer live near one] white-tablecloth service with waitstaff and reservations and such.
posted by chazlarson at 3:58 PM on September 29, 2015


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