Every so often the Internet kicks out something that triggers a tidal wave of memories and sets you off on a silly (and probably completely useless) quest to find a nugget of info or the answer to that long ago forgotten question. A few weeks back I saw an “I’m Not Herb” shirt listed on eBay and off I went…to YouTube to watch the commercials, to Wikipedia to read about the campaign, to Google to read critics panning the campaign and ultimately imdb to learn about the career of the actor who played Herb in the iconic Burger King campaign of the mid-1980s.
If I told you that today, Jon Menick, the actor who portrayed the hapless Herb was out of show business you might not be surprised. If I told you he is out of show business after a long, fruitful career which included feature films, network TV and a slew of national commercials you might not believe me, but thanks to the kickstart offered by this campaign, Jon Menick carved a nice career for himself out in Hollywood (eschewing the seemingly certain perils of typecasting) and has recently ditched the rat race for a more peaceful life working in the Valhalla of the Americas – Asheville, North Carolina.
I had the chance to speak with Jon about life pre- and post-Herb, but for those who may not be 100% familiar with the campaign, perhaps a bit of a refresher is in order (I keep having to remind myself that not everyone who reads this blog is a mid-30’s male weaned on TV and fast food – although I am sure there is some Google Analytics tool that would tell me I have the demo pretty well pegged…thanks for visiting!)
Homogeny From Sea To Shining Sea
In the early 1980’s a war raged across our country, one that would change the landscape (and shape of humans) like no war had before or since. Fast food, which until then had been a regional affair, was in the throes of the last great land grab. Regions of the country that had subsisted on burgers and fries prepared with local flair at hamburger stands and greasy spoons were facing an invasion of golden arches, burger royalty and a freckle faced girl in pigtails. It is hard to even imagine now areas of the country that didn’t have access to these homogeneous fast food empires, but it is true (and it occurred in my lifetime). I can (and I am sure many readers can, too) remember dominant local chains which existed and thrived across the country delivering what may realistically have been just complete knock-offs of McDonald’s, Burger King and to a lesser extent Wendy’s…but many of us did not know better (and/or may have been better off for it). So, back to the war…
By the 1980’s most every part of the country was infiltrated and in order to gain market share, the big chains spent millions battling for mindshare and walletshare by launching some of the most memorable and expensive TV ad campaigns ever seen. Perhaps we’ll explore this a bit further in future posts, but the first major shot fired was by Wendy’s with their famous “Where’s The Beef” campaign featuring the lovable octagenerian Clara Peller. Wendy’s had placed McDonald’s and Burger King on the defensive and each answered in a completely different way. McDonald’s introduced the McDLT, with its unique packaging and value statement (wasn’t it “Keep the hot side hot and the cold side cold?”). Burger King answered with a character of their own to match up against Peller…Herb.
The Original Whopper Virgin
Herb was born in the fertile minds of the creative folks at J Walter Thompson, who at the time were helmed by James Patterson who now enjoys life as basically the most successful fiction writer alive. Though his direct ties to the Herb campaign are tough to confirm, what is known is that Herb almost never happened. In fact, the first time the character-driven concept was presented to their client (Burger King) the idea was shot down. Pitched again months later as the Burger Wars continued to heat up, the idea grew legs and a two-part campaign was crafted.
The first part was “Who’s Herb?” in which the world was asked to ponder what would a guy who has never tasted a Burger King Whopper look like? Concerned friends and relatives appeared in commercials questioning just what type of person could go through life without tasting a Whopper. The implication was that only “Herbs” (a nickname for geeks/nerds/other undesirables) don’t eat at Burger King and if you wanted to avoid the stigma of being a nerd yourself you’d better get one right now. (It is at this point that I must tell any millennials/Gen Yers reading this that there was a time in our humble country when using a computer and showing a modicum of interest in technology was not cool…if you need more information on this wild and backwards-seeming time I encourage you to add the following to your Netflix queue Revenge Of The Nerds, Revenge Of The Nerds II: Nerds In Paradise, Revenge Of The Nerds III: The Next Generation and of course Revenge Of The Nerds IV: Nerds In Love).
The second part of the campaign was “Where’s Herb?” and in what may have been the first example of a character jumping off the TV screen into real life, North Americans were challenged to be on the lookout for Herb at their local Burger King and if they were the first to spot him they would win $5,000. Enter into the story, Jon Menick, who at the time was a stage actor living in New York City.
(Wow! You just read almost 1000 words about Herb…want to hear more? Part II will be posted later this week. I will announce the post via twitter @burgatory or if you’d like me to email you when it is posted, send me an email with the subject “I gotta have more Herb!” to firstname.lastname@example.org. You’ll get a one-time email from me – that’s it! No spam, just a heads up when the next part of the story is posted)