For 25 days in the winter of 1986, Jon Menick traveled the country. He would be ushered into a Burger King franchise location by his handlers, loitering until someone recognized his olive-green jacket and high-water pants. He’d wait for them to say hello, at which point he’d stick out his hand and tell them they’d just won $5000.
Menick repeated this process for all 50 states and the District of Columbia. He was appearing in character as Herb, Burger King’s latest pitchman. Aside from his outmoded fashion sense, Herb was notable for being just about the only man in the country who had never eaten a Whopper. Months of print and television ads had teased Herb’s existence; his “family” and “friends” were interviewed, discussing this blight on their existence. The idea of a man who had never succumbed to the pleasures of a grilled fast-service burger was presented as proportionate to a man who had never tasted an orange or experienced a full moon.
Burger King was certain Herb would help cut into the market share held by their perennial rivals at McDonald’s. And while he was, for a time, one of the most easily identifiable faces on television thanks to that cash reward, he would also prove to be what Advertising Age would later declare the biggest promotional flop of the decade. Recognizing Herb was not quite the same as liking him.
In 1985, McDonald’s saw more than 15 million customers a day, who handed over a total of $9 billion annually for their hamburgers, fries, Happy Meals, and McNuggets. While their advertising budget was substantial, it was only in an effort to retain their incredible 37 percent market share of burger joints. Burger King and Wendy’s, in contrast, had to fight for every scrap left over.
With the merits of their food a subjective discussion, both franchises leaned heavily on ad campaigns to try and pull in more stomachs. Wendy’s hit big with their “Where’s the Beef?” campaign of 1984, in which an elderly woman named Clara seemed disappointed by the lack of meat in the competition’s burgers.
Burger King needed a Clara of their own. Ad agency J. Walter Thompson pitched them on the idea of a man who had committed the mortal sin of never tasting a Whopper. A pariah, he’d be spoken of in hushed tones by his associates. After toying with names like Oscar and Mitch, the agency settled on Herb. “Who’s Herb?” was slated to become the company’s campaign focus for late 1985.
The ad agency began by putting cryptic ads in newspapers that didn’t name Burger King or offer much of a hint of the direction they were taking. “It’s not too late, Herb,” read one; “What are you waiting for, Herb?” read another. In one instance, a man with the same first name who owed money to loan sharks saw the ads and thought he was being personally targeted.
From there, J. Walter Thompson rolled out a series of television spots featuring Herb’s shamed relatives. A kind of viral ad before the concept of viral marketing existed, people began to speculate about Herb: his likes, dislikes, what he looked like, and why he had never delighted his intestines with a Whopper. People who marched into a Burger King and announced “I’m not Herb” could get a burger for 99 cents. Overall store sales spiked by 10 percent.
Though Burger King never openly discussed it, plans were already underway to cast an actor as Herb for phase two of the campaign. After spending two months and $40 million on the ads, America would finally get to see the real thing.
A trained stage performer, Jon Menick was plucked out of a pool of 75 actors to portray the character in ad spots that would debut with the January 1986 Super Bowl. Menick traveled to Wisconsin on Burger King’s dime to visit a cheese factory and “find” Herb’s essence. MTV agreed to let him be a guest VJ for a day. He earned a spot as guest timekeeper for WrestleMania 2. After months of going incognito, Herb would be everywhere.
When he debuted during Super Bowl XX, there was a collective sigh of disappointment. Herb was a nerd who didn’t appear to possess many charming qualities. During a “press conference,” he admitted he tried a burger at Burger King and loved it. It wasn't exactly a startling plot twist. Two months of pent-up curiosity resulted in a mass exodus of interest on the part of burger aficionados.
Burger King leaned on bribery, offering a $5000 reward for anyone who spotted Menick-as-Herb during his nationwide tour. (Local franchisees could kick in more if they wanted: some witnesses scored $10,000.) But the chain suffered further criticism when a series of episodes involving underage winners undermined their generosity. To discourage kids from cutting class to brood in Burger Kings all day waiting for Herb to show, the company insisted on a minimum age of 16 for winners.
One adolescent, Jason Hallman of Alabama, was 15 when he spotted Herb in March 1986. Burger King gave his 16-year-old friend the $5000 instead. Hallman’s parents complained, with the Alabama state senate weighing in. They labeled Burger King’s actions as approaching “consumer fraud” because they had failed to make the age minimum a prominent part of the rules. Another juvenile disqualified from the prize in Reno was awarded the $5000 by the local operator.
That May, Burger King ended any further mention of Herb, turning their advertising focus to “real people” who enjoyed their menu items. Then-company president Jay Darling admitted Herb “did not work nearly as well” as he had expected.
The following year, patrons were no longer on the hunt for Herb, but falling over themselves to locate a far more popular attraction. Burger King had just shipped eight million ALF puppets to stores.