Here’s how my brain works: “I think I’ll write a blog post about running. I’m hungry. Maybe I should write about proper nutrition for marathon runners. I wonder how many people found Herb in that Burger King promo in 1985?” So I decided to write about Burger King.
First, I should say that I haven’t eaten at a Burger King in a long time, maybe since I was a teenager and certainly not since I’ve been married. (I verified this with my lovely wife Jen.) When I told my middle child, the patient one, that I was thinking about posting something on Burger King, she said, “What possible connection to Burger King could you have?” See, we don’t really eat fast food that much. There is an Arby’s literally within sight of our house that we have never been to. (Editor’s note: Yes, “literally” as in literally.) I have not yet set foot in the Burger King in our town, and we’ve lived here for 14 years. I could count on one hand the number of times I’ve seen the insides of all of the Wendy’s, McDonald’s, Taco Bell, KFC, Little Caesar’s, and Pizza Hut franchises in our town put together.
My kids think I have always been hyper-vigilant about my health and theirs. Actually, I’m shielding them from a shameful secret from my past: until I met their mother, I was a fast-food junkie.
I grew up loving McDonald’s. (My favorite menu item of theirs from my childhood: Quarter Pounder with Cheese. Ooh, and the Triple Thick Shake, vanilla flavored.) And Burger King (Whopper Jr. with Cheese.) And Arby’s (Beef ‘n Cheddar.) And Taco Bell (the BellBeefer, which was a ground-beef taco in a burger bun, kind of like a sloppy joe but tasting all Taco Bell-ish). I could go on, but I won’t because I want to get to the Where’s Herb? campaign.
But first, of all the fast-food joints in my hometown, Burger King holds a special place in my heart (and my arteries) because it was within walking distance of my junior high. Every few weeks, a few of my friends and I would skip the bus ride home and walk to Burger King. I have no idea how I informed my mom of this change in plans; with no cell phone, I probably used a quarter at a payphone to call home, or I just came in late and no one cared. (This was a looser time in American childrearing history.)
One of my friends’ favorite pastimes at Burger King was to unscrew the lids to the salt shakers but place them on the tables so that they looked normal. (Back when salt and pepper shakers were routinely left on tables.) Then we would wait for someone else, usually an unsuspecting friend sitting at the same table as us, to sprinkle salt on their already-heavily-salted fries and watch the lid fall off and all the salt pour out onto the fries. We believed that we were hilarious and original.
Sometimes we would wait until a friend’s back was turned while they flirted with girls at a nearby table and we would dump salt or pepper into their soda. Once, we dumped about 10 tablespoonfuls of sugar into a friend’s Pepsi; the joke was on us when he drank it because he didn’t even notice a difference.
One of the funniest things I have ever witnessed, food-wise, was when a boy who was one year older than me bet that he could stuff a whole Whopper in his mouth. We pooled our money and offered him 10 bucks if he could do it. (I should mention that he had a mouth like Mick Jagger’s.) He took the Whopper, opened as far wide as he could, and (I am not making this up) placed the whole Whopper in his freakishly large pie hole and closed his lips around it. He held his hand out for the money, but one of my friends said, “Not until you swallow it.” He started trying to chew it without opening his mouth, and it was apparent that this wasn’t really working. Have you ever had one of those moments wherein simply making eye contact with someone makes you laugh so hard that you’re crying? He and I did that. Except I could laugh out loud, but he was tearing up and little Whopper bits were spritzing out of his lips and all over. His tears were filled with sesame seeds from the bun. (No middle schoolers were harmed in the making of this memory.)
But this is a blog post about Herb. Remember Herb? (Sorry, I’m paraphrasing Arlo Guthrie’s “Alice’s Restaurant.” The song, not the subsequent movie, which was practically unwatchable, unless you’re on drugs. Which may have been the point.) For years, I’ve asked people who lived through the ’80s with me if they remember the “Where’s Herb?” ad campaign. Usually, the answer is no, not really, or it sort of rings a bell. That surprises me because it’s pretty vivid in my memory, for two reasons: 1. I watched a lot of TV. A lot of TV. My kids have no idea what “too much screen time” means. The main screen in our house at the time, the TV, came on when the first person (my dad) woke up in the morning, around 4:30 a.m., and it stayed on until the last person (my mom) went to bed, around 10:30 p.m. Then my brother and I would secretly stay up late watching Johnny Carson and sometimes David Letterman on the black-and-white TV in our shared bedroom. (Don’t tell my dad; he was under the impression we were asleep by 10.) Subsequently, I saw all these commercials in 1985 concerning a mysterious guy named Herb. Oh, and 2. I had a marketing class in college, and the “Where’s Herb?” campaign was taught as an example of how not to promote a product.
The idea behind the $40 million campaign (according to Wikipedia) was that there was a guy named Herb who was the only person left in the country who hadn’t ever eaten at Burger King. There were these commercials showing Herb’s friends and relatives expressing concern about him and saying, “Herb was always a little different.” Then came the kicker of the campaign: Herb (actually, an actor named Jon Menick) would visit a Burger King in each of the 50 states, and whoever recognized him would win $5000, and then the rest of the customers in the restaurant at the time would have their names entered in a contest to win $1 million. From mid-November until the Super Bowl in January 1986, Herb’s identity wasn’t revealed, so basically, millions of us would walk into our local Burger Kings and ask random guys, “Are you Herb?” Because (and I can’t stress this flaw in the campaign’s premise enough) no one knew what Herb looked like because he didn’t appear in the commercials. Burger King aired a commercial finally showing Herb during the Super Bowl. Herb was very plain looking, like a typical ’80s movie nerd (glasses, buzz cut, tie, flood pants). From what I recollect, the actor would wander into a Burger King in, say, Indiana, and linger for a while, with a handler who would judge which person spotted him first. In some cases (many, apparently), no one recognized him. It’s not like he was Ronald McDonald prancing around or even the Hamburglar. That was part of the problem: this campaign was supposed to show how Burger King was different than McDonald’s somehow.
The campaign lost so much steam that it morphed into a discount promotion: anyone could walk into a Burger King, say, “I’m not Herb,” and get a burger for 99 cents or something. (If your name was Herb, you could say, “I’m not the Herb you’re looking for.”) For a while, I followed news reports of the states in which Herb was spotted, but the media sort of let it all fade away, so I remember only a handful of states. (Remember that this was in the days before the Internet, so there was no easy way to keep track of this.) For years later, I would periodically think, “If I find myself in a Burger King and I see Herb, is the $5000 offer still good?”
I can find no verifiable list of the number of states that Herb crossed off his list. I’m not sure if Burger King will want to sponsor my blog after reading this post, but for what it’s worth, I was the one guy who liked the Where’s Herb? campaign. Did I mention that Burger King’s sales dropped 40% from 1985 to 1986? So it’s not as if the campaign didn’t have an effect; it drove tens of thousands of customers to McDonald’s and Wendy’s and other rivals (who advertised, and I am not making this up, that Herb ate at their places but not at Burger King). For those of you who do eat at Burger King, here’s a fun activity you can take away from this post: Next time you’re there, give your order, then look around furtively and whisper, “I’m not Herb.” Let me know what the discount is at nowadays.
For what it’s worth, this is Arlo Guthrie’s “Alice’s Restaurant.” Yes, it’s over 18 minutes long. I’m not saying you should listen to the whole thing, but you’ve come this far with me, so why stop now?