Today marks the 30th anniversary of what might be considered the first video to go viral, years before the World Wide Web, camera phones and social media. On January 10, 1984, Americans heard 81-year-old Clara Peller ask for the very first time, “Where’s the beef?” Examination of what developed from that Wendy’s TV ad campaign can give a fresh perspective on what it really means to go viral.

A bite of history

In 1984, fast-food chain Wendy’s was losing the burger race big-time to McDonald’s and Burger King. Those competitors could consistently undercut Wendy’s on price because by using less of the expensive ingredients (meat) and more of the cheap stuff (buns and condiments). Wendy’s created the “Where’s the beef?” campaign (the original ad was called “Fluffy Bun”) to call their competitors on quality.

And it worked. Wendy’s saw a 31 percent jump in revenues after the campaign. What’s more, Ms. Peller’s catchphrase immediately caught on with the general public.

Back then, we called it wildly successful. Today, we’d call it viral.

It’s the meme, not the video

When we think of viral videos today, we first think in terms of numbers: That video got how many million views? Back in the 1980s, though, how often a video or ad could be seen was controlled in large part by a company’s advertising spend.

Certainly everyone in the United States who watched TV or read magazines had come into contact with the “Where’s the beef?” campaign, but it couldn’t easily be shared — and people couldn’t watch the thing whenever they wanted — the way videos are today.

Although Richard Dawkins had coined the word meme in 1976, it hadn’t been widely adopted by 1984. But that is indeed what “Where’s the beef?” was — a meme. What made the ad campaign viral wasn’t that people loved the commercials (though they did), but that they loved the meme, and they ran with it.

Yes, there was even a board game!
Yes, there was even a board game!

Signs that a meme has gone viral

A meme can be successful or popular without being viral. What sets something viral apart is how much it is integrated into popular culture. As marketers and advertising execs the world over try to tap the secrets of viral marketing, they would do well to rely less on the number of views and look more toward what indicates true virality:

It gets used without reference to its original purpose or meaning.

“Where’s the beef?” caught on quickly in 1984 and just as quickly evolved into a metaphorical question, if not a metaphysical one. “Where’s the beef?” became the rhetorical question to ask of someone offering anything insubstantial or overhyped.

The phrase hit the national stage in a big way in March of that year when Walter Mondale wielded it against fellow Democratic presidential candidate Gary Hart as a criticism that Hart’s policies lacked any true substance. Mondale, of course, won the nomination.

People advertise it for free — or even pay for it!

Handing out free tchotchkes bearing company logos and catchphrases has long been a staple of marketing. Except on college campuses — where students pounce on any free merchandise — these cheap trinkets are usually received reluctantly and instantly thrown away or tossed in a drawer and forgotten.

But for this viral campaign, and for others like it, people actually seek out those pens, flying discs and bumper stickers and put them where they can be seen. In the mid-eighties, people were even paying for “Where’s the beef?” T-shirts and wearing them.

Imagine if people were paying to spread your marketing campaign!

Someone makes art out of it.

Today, the Internet is chock full of music inspired by current memes, from high-production-value creations by The Lonely Island and songified news by Schmoyoho to millions of slapdash performances posted by YouTubers hoping for fame. But the Internet didn’t create these satirists and songsters, it just gave them an outlet. Sure, in the 1980s we had “Weird Al” Yankovic, but we also had lesser-known talents cutting creative, meme-based tracks.

Like this ditty by Coyote McCloud:

Others try to copy it.

If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, Wendy’s marketing department must have been extremely flattered (and stoked) when Burger King tried its own version of that ad campaign in 1985 with “Where’s Herb?” It was a flop.

The ultimate viral campaign has staying power.

Wendy’s ended the ad campaign after a year, and Clara Peller died in in 1987, but “Where’s the beef?” is still a part of the collective consciousness, three decades later. Pinterest, for example, has literally hundreds of boards titled “Where’s the beef?”

Certainly, longevity isn’t a requisite of virality. Most viral successes, like the flu, flare up for short periods and then fade into “whatever happened to that?” obscurity. But a campaign like “Where’s the beef?” that, like the common cold, never seems to completely disappear is something to be proud of way beyond any thought of revenue growth or corporate success.

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