Pillsbury Co.'s Burger King takes the stage at Super Bowl XX with its $40 million "Herb the Nerd" campaign via still-independent agency J. Walter Thompson, its agency since 1976.
After a six-week buildup of spots describing an elusive character who had never tasted a Whopper, generating claims of sightings from the public, Burger King took the "Herb" effort to advertising's biggest stage. After an appearance on NBC's "Today Show" five days before the Super Bowl, one of two Burger King ads in the game itself finds Herb at a press conference where he says he's finally had a Whopper, loves them and is going on a nationwide tour of Burger King restaurants. The first consumer to spot him in each one wins $5,000 (and a shot at $1 million).
As Ad Age reported before the game:
According to Tom Sawyer, BK vp-marketing, Herb's itinerary is so secret that even he is not aware of it. BK's plan is for Herb to show up unanncounced at each restaurant on his list around lunchtime, and mope about until someone spots him.
The second ad, seen here, shows Herb in a dramatized version of one of those visits.
The campaign was criticized by observers including Stuart Elliott at The New York Times, who asked what it said about Burger King consumers if a nerd eats there. JWT creative director James Patterson later ventured to the Times that Herb, whose campaign ran just four months, "should have been a surprisingly attractive individual." But Burger King said even the flat sales that resulted were a victory in the face of McDonald's $100 million McDLT onslaught, which included two ads in the very same Super Bowl ("Romeo and Juliet," "Pepe le Pew").
"BK didn’t have a product to compete with it at the time and they wanted a great diversion," recalled Hal Friedman, creative director at J. Walter Thompson at the time, who wrote most of the Herb spots along with associate creative director Brian Sitts. "At the time it was referred to as ‘event marketing.'"
Later Super Bowl work included the 1995 ad by Ammirati & Puras/Lintas ("Used Cars") and a 2006 spot by Crispin Porter & Bogusky ("America's Favorite"). Burger King previously used 1983's "Ultimate Weapon," starring Elisabeth Shue, to kick off a "Battle of the Burgers" against rivals.
BRAND: Burger King
AGENCY: J. Walter Thompson