Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Clara, Meet Big Bird

Clara Peller was a retired manicurist who found fame after the age of 80, in early 1984, when she barked out three words that became a national catch phrase. Then the phenomenon dovetailed into the 1984 presidential campaign, and Clara enjoyed a new wave of popularity.

You never know who will be plucked from obscurity or the recesses of our consciousness when it's an election year.

In 1984 it was Peller, who famously and angrily asked, "Where's the beef?' in a Wendy's commercial mocking competitors who rely on big buns and not-so-big hamburger patties.

It didn't take long before we were all saying, "Where's the beef?" in a variety of situations. It started on TV, of course, and then filtered its way to the water coolers and barber shops.

The commercial hit the airwaves in January, 1984 and a few months later it got a second jolt of awareness when, in the Democratic presidential primaries, Walter Mondale used the catch phrase as a way of attacking rival Gary Hart's economic plan. Mondale didn't feel that Hart was offering much in the way of details.

Sound familiar?

Wendy's campaign with Peller didn't just create a catch phrase; sales jumped 31% in the year after "Where's the Beef?" first aired.

According to Wikipedia, Wendy's senior vice president for communications, Denny Lynch, stated at the time that "with Clara we accomplished as much in five weeks as we did in 14½ years."

Lyndon Johnson had his scare tactic ad against Barry Goldwater in 1964, juxtaposing a little girl pulling petals off a flower with the images of a countdown to a nuclear attack. Ronald Reagan had his "It's Morning in America" campaign. Michael Dukakis battled the spectre of furloughed felon Willie Horton, who committed rape while on release in Massachusetts.

All those, plus Clara Peller and more, became iconic in their respective presidential campaigns.


Clara Peller, wondering where the beef is (1984)


Add Big Bird to the list.

It's becoming apparent that the tall, gangly character from Sesame Street is going to be 2012's pop culture icon thrust into presidential politics.

It's been just one week since Mitt Romney brought Big Bird into the discussion, when he targeted in his debate with President Obama, PBS as a potential victim of a President Romney administration's efforts to pay for his tax plan.

In this day and age, a week may as well be six months. For it only took a few days for Big Bird to enjoy a spate of popularity he hasn't experienced in maybe decades, if at all.

Heck, it hasn't been since 1976, when Mark "The Bird" Fidrych enthralled America pitching for the Tigers, that Big Bird has been mentioned this much in mainstream media.

Big Bird is doing the circuit now. "Saturday Night Live" came calling, and the Bird is making appearances here and there.

The president these days is quick to mention Big Bird in mocking Romney's tax plan and how it is to be paid for.

Clara Peller died in August 1987, aged 85 and her 15 minutes of fame drained from the clock. She did make some other commercials for products like Prego spaghetti sauce, but nothing close in popularity to the "Where's the Beef?" campaign.

Fortunately, Big Bird is immortal. Although after a few more weeks of the tall, yellow, feathered creature being shoved in our face, maybe that won't seem like such a good thing.

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