Thursday, September 16, 2010

Anatomy of an Advertising Fail: Burger King's "Where's Herb?" Campaign

I would have to say if you vaguely remember an advertising campaign, or remember it only because it was so bad, then it's safe to say the concept was a flop. Such was the case in the mid-80s when Burger King debuted its "Where's Herb?" promo. I stumbled upon this sad tale while searching for something else, and have to admit it didn't ring any bells with me, until I watched the commercials on YouTube. Legend has it the campaign is taught to future mad men and women as a lesson on advertising disaster. Burger King's profits plummeted 40% in 1986 for putting its trust in a lame fictional character. So let's take a look, shall we?

In 1985, Burger King was already in trouble. Wendy's had been enjoying much success with its "Where's the Beef?" campaign and McDonald's had launched its McDLT sandwich. BK turned to the J. Walter Thompson advertising firm to raise its public awareness. They came up with the idea of a fictional character that they dubbed Herb. Herb was what you would call a burger, or more specifically, Whopper virgin. He was a mysterious man who had never eaten one in his entire life (I'd say that also makes him pretty smart.) Burger King first started mentioning Herb in newspaper ads, banners, and flyers. They went through so much trouble as to actually give Herb an exciting life of his own; he was supposed to be from Wisconsin, worked in a cheese factory, and sold decoy ducks. Where things really take a turn for Cluelessville, however, was when Burger King started to tell people to be on the lookout for Herb in their local BK restaurant, because if he was spotted, you'd win a whopping $5,000!

There's so many things wrong here. First, since no one knew what Herb actually looked like, winning the money was virtually impossible at this point. I imagine male strangers probably asked each other in BK restaurants if they were Herb. Customers were instructed in ads to say "I'm not Herb" when ordering a Whopper - that would allow them to buy it for 99 cents. Customers who were named Herb were told to say, "I'm not the Herb you're looking for." Thunk! First of all, how many men have you met in your life who were actually named Herb? Secondly, why do the people at Burger King have to know your name?

But perhaps most pathetic about the whole contest was the paltry prize...$5,000? Even for 1985, that amount just seems stinking ass cheap to me! I suppose it could buy you a Pontiac Fiero.

After much build-up, Burger King decided to reveal "Herb" during the 1986 Superbowl. He turned out to be the atypical portrait of an 80s nerd: glasses, too-short black pants matched with white socks, and greased back hair. At least, now, a face had been put to the name, but it was too late. Consumers quickly lost interest in the campaign and Herb was officially retired a couple of months after his debut. Wendy's actually had some fun with the ill conceived idea by saying that Herb ate at their restaurants, and Saturday Night Live capitalized on the pop culture flop by having Randy Quaid portray Herb giving a press conference - which sounds remarkably more entertaining than the promotion itself.

The campaign also faced a legal issue when a 15 year-old boy spotted Herb at a Burger King in Alabama. Because he was just shy of the 16 year-old age requirement to be a winner, the $5,000 was awarded to his older friend who was with him in the restaurant at the time. The boy's parents complained to their Alabama representative, and Burger King's actions were declared as consumer fraud by the State Senate.

The actor who played Herb--Jon Menick--made out the best of all of the players in the tale. He went on to gain more acting work and appeared as a guest timekeeper (along with Clara Peller, Wendy's "Where's the Beef?" lady) at a World Wrestling Federation match. Burger King pulled its account out of J. Walter Thompson.

Herb also got a brief mention in a rap song in 1989. Canadian rapper Maestro Fresh Wes sang the lyrics, "I eat at Burger King 'cause I'm not Herb, and if your name happens to be Herb, just say 'I'm not the Herb you're looking for, word.'"

In this case, the word would have to be...craptacular.

Here's one of the lame-o Herb commercials:


  1. I remember Herb very well. He was around in the New Coke era (Which was horrible). '85 and '86 was a very bizarre advertising time.

  2. I'm surprised I remember this commercial!

  3. I remember this ad campaign. Definitely a dud.

  4. I really had not remembered this until my brother mentioned it a few years ago. I had no idea about the whole contest thing until reading your post - thanks for this bit of 80's info.

  5. Man do I remember Herb! I fantasized about winning the Five grand so I could buy a Chrome-molly Mongoose BMX Bike. (No joke)

  6. I don't remember this at all! Target audiences at the time must have thought it was a dud in its day too. Usually I remember crap like this!

  7. I don't remember this ad campaign either. I feel like they should rename it Hard Luck Herb.

    Reminds me a bit of the ad campaign for a movie called Million Dollar Mystery that ended up becoming a legendary disaster. Yikes.

  8. I don't remember Herb...but this reminds me of another lame promotional campaign the King attempted in the mid-to-late 80s... the "flame-broiled pledge". If you raised your right hand and said "I promise to never eat another fried burger again" (Burger King's were FLAME BROILED, don't ya know) you got your Whopper at a discount (and yes, the guy working the register really did make you say it before giving you the discount)

  9. I was working on Wall Street when these ads came out. From the very moment they first appeared, they were a flop. Someone was obviously trying to create some "buzz" in an embarrassing way. Herb the Nerd banners where everywhere, but the entire premise that he had never tasted a Whopper made no sense at all. And if you spotted him? Why would you spot him if he had never eaten a Whopper? Would you be so lucky as to spot him the very first time he went into a Burger King? The campaign fizzled and disappeared immediately.

  10. Look, Smithers, Erb is coming!


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