“Where’s the beef?” It’s one of the most memorable lines in advertising, having become an idiom in its own right after its debut in a 1984 Wendy’s commercial that contributed to a reported 30% jump in sales that year for the fast food chain. The line was originally supposed to be the decidedly less catchy “Where’s all the beef?” but Clara Peller, the elderly star of the commercial, had emphysema and couldn’t get through the whole sentence, so it had to be shortened. If the director Joe Sedelmaier hadn’t cast an everyday person that no other ad director would have chosen, the commercial might never have taken off.
Watch: The TV Commercials of Joe Sedelmaier
But that’s the School of the Art Institute of Chicago-trained Sedelmaier’s style: to show ordinary people in surreal, subtly comic situations; he has cited Candid Camera as one of his influences. “They’re not perfect like the people in the plastic commercials on TV,” he told the Los Angeles Times. Nearly three-quarters of his ads featured non-actors.
From the “Where’s the beef?” ad to the fast-talking FedEx executive (which helped the company dominate the delivery business) to the hellish flights portrayed in Alaska Airlines spots, Sedelmaier has a singular – and successful – style. He was notorious for insisting on creative control, sometimes completely overriding an ad agency’s idea. It’s part of the reason he started his own production company in 1967. His one foray into filmmaking, as director of the Rodney Dangerfield vehicle Easy Money, was cut short when he quit – Dangerfield didn’t like Sedelmaier’s alterations to the script. “The most important person to please is myself,” he has said.
After himself, though, he thinks of the television viewer who has to sit through the commercials. “I want people to be able to watch each commercial over and over again,” he has said; he wants the viewer to be entertained. “I came out of the agency business, and what I so often heard was, ‘Well, the average person has the mind of a 12-year-old.’ I think people who say things like that have the minds of 12-year-olds,” he told the Orange County Register.
Discover the work of another influential Chicago advertising director of the time who pioneered targeted advertising that was aimed at black people and incorporated elements of black culture.
From the beginning, he wanted to use comedy to sell and entertain. “Humor puts things in perspective, and especially in commercials that’s important to me,” he said to the Register. “Let’s face it: the world’s not going to end, and you’re not going to change as a person because you use this product.”
Nevertheless, he did change the world of advertising. After his success in the 1980s, countless ads featured the kinds of underplayed average people he relied on. He was one of the highest paid directors in the industry in the early 1990s, won numerous Clios (the Oscars of the ad world), and successfully generated huge amounts of business for his most famous clients, all without leaving his base in Chicago, far from the insular worlds of New York or Hollywood. To the mass-produced commercials produced in those industry centers, he might just say, “Where’s the beef?”