by Barbara Berkeley, MD
For those of you who are old enough to have lived in the pre-modern era, Wendy's "Where's the Beef?" ad campaign likely remains a sweet, if dated memory. Produced in the 1980s, before the obesity epidemic began in earnest, these commercials (see one here) featured Clara Peller, a feisty octogenarian who gave voice to the tagline. They were hugely popular, and like the development of the Pillsbury Doughboy, Speedy Alka-Seltzer, and Betty Crocker, gave a specific face to the Wendy's brand.
Yesterday's New York Times published an article that announced Wendy's intention to revive the "Where's the Beef?" campaign. But times have changed. Dave Thomas, self-proclaimed hamburger lover and founder of Wendy's, underwent quadruple coronary bypass surgery in 1996. His well-known form, as seen in many of the company's commercials, was unapologetically overweight and featured the pronounced pot belly that often presages health disaster. (Thomas died of liver cancer in 2002 at age 66).
Thomas, who had been adopted shortly after birth, was an advocate for adoption rights and reforms. He did much good. But we know a great deal more about fast food today than we did in the 80s and one has to wonder what Dave would really think of his company's decision to intensify the marketing of the very foods that make obesity and coronary bypass more likely for those kids he sought to protect.
The Times article contains many statements that are written without irony but seem oddly out of touch, to say the least. It also contains a link to the current "Where's the Beef" commercial featuring Little Wendy, Dave Thomas's daughter, now 50 years old. I will let you take a look and come to your own conclusions about the use of the Little Wendy name.
Does Wendy's believe it is doing good by promoting double and triple cheeseburgers with a budget that is "probably twice what we would normally do in a launch of a new product", in the words of their senior vice president? The Times says that "the bleak economy is the chief reason for the intensification of the burger wars, which pit Wendy's against chains like Burger King, Carl's Jr., Checkers, Five Guys, Hardee's, In-N-Out and, of course the mighty McDonald's." The article goes on to say, "Consumers who are struggling financially are turning to fast-food chains to save money on meals." But oh, the irony! The self-same NY Times featured an article by it's food writer Mark Bittman just last week that fully debunked the claim that fast food is cheaper than plain old healthy home cooking. (Read Bittman's article here).
In another ironic twist, Wendy's has chosen to name it's new, juicier burgers "Dave's Hot and Juicy" line, after it's founder. His daughter "beams", "These would've made Dad say, "Here's the beef!'".
When I was 15 years old, I was sitting at lunch with my Dad while he ate a big, juicy hamburger. Half-way through his meal he developed chest pain, started sweating and had a heart attack. He later had a sextuple vessel coronary bypass and was dogged with health issues related to the habits of his younger years, smoking, eating lots of fatty and fried foods, and being sedentary. Unlike Dave Thomas, he survived it all and was able to change the way he lived and ate. It is to that experience at the lunch table that I attribute my desire to help people lose weight and make a food conversion.
Is it the job of business to help their customers make healthy choices? No. Do their over-the-top advertising campaigns and endless reach allow them to do good should they decide to? Yes.
Wendy's has the beef, but my beef is that they--and other large corporations-- don't have the conscience to use their brand to make a real change in American health.