“Bald guys like me don’t get famous, we’re just happy to get work.”
Fresh from the road playing the role of Elwood P. Dowd as part of the touring company for Mary Chase’s Harvey, Jon Menick’s agent arranged an audition for “something.” The intentional ambiguity of the agent’s statement would portend a lot of the secrecy which surrounded this second part of the campaign. With so much on the line (money-wise), finding an unknown actor and then keeping his identity a secret until the right time was critical. Menick’s acting ability and lack of national presence helped him secure the role of Herb, and Menick shared with me some of the planning that went into fleshing out his character.
The venerable Vangie Hayes from J Walter Thompson financed a trip for Menick to research the details of his character’s life, and with $3k in hand he ventured to his home state of Wisconsin to “find Herb.” And if you were looking for a character like Herb in America’s Dairyland, you’d probably find him exactly where Menick did…
“I went to Wisconsin and lived in a cheese factory for 3 days while I developed the Herb character. I came back with a photo album detailing the life of Herb.”
Who he was, where he worked, even his girlfriend’s name (Bonnie if you must know) were all details Menick brought to life during his trip to Wisconsin and he packed these particulars along with 2 sets of “Herb clothes” on his journey across North America.
Herb’s first stop? NBC’s Today Show for a coming out party and his “first taste” of a Burger King Whopper. Of course, this wasn’t Menick’s first Whopper…
“I was eating at Burger King before the campaign and I continue to eat there to this day.”
In fact, burger infatuation started early for Menick.
“When I was a kid we had a grille (burger joint) in our town that made hamburgers to die for. It makes my mouth water just thinking about them.”
“In high school they served burgers at lunch…I think I had burgers there 180 days a year.”
“To this day I eat hamburgers at least twice a week.”
Eating burgers was the last thing Menick could do as he was whisked across the continent, hitting 60 restaurants in 25 days as part of the contest portion of the campaign. The premise was this – Herb would go into a Burger King restaurant and the first person to recognize him would win $5k (the local franchise operator had the option to kick in more money if they wished and some folks won $10k for identifying Herb).
“I had a contest official on my arm and he would determine who the first person was.”
This of course wasn’t without some bit of controversy as a 1986 lawsuit filed in Alabama would prove. State lawmakers angered by the company’s decision to disqualify a 15 year old from winning a $5k prize (and instead offering it to his 16 year old friend) because he was didn’t meet the age requirements listed in the company’s contest rules threatened to invoke remedial legislation. Time magazine’s story of these events features one of the greatest political quotes of all-time from then State Senator Mac Parsons, who in describing Burger King’s actions noted:
“I feel what Burger King did was as bad as what the Grinch did when he stole Christmas.”
thereby invoking the actions of one fictional character to describe the actions of another fictional character. Mac Parson’s still serves the residents of Alabama as a Circuit Court Judge.
Part 3 of the interview will be posted shortly. 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