Thomas found it hip to be square

Thomas' popularity derived from subtle contradictions. He was cool because he was anti-cool. He seemed slow in an industry that stressed fast. And his common-sense approach and ho-hum attitude swayed suburbanites disillusioned by the hard-sell. Asked why the company's hamburgers were square, Thomas replied: "Because we don't cut corners." That revealed much about the man and his approach to ads.

The Toronto Star
January 9, 2002

Thomas found it hip to be square
Vinay Menon

In an industry preoccupied with flash and glitz, gimmicks and trends, Dave Thomas and his Wendy's commercials stood out like a burger on a caviar-and-lobster party tray.

Homey. Unpretentious. Simple. Unadorned.

Thomas, who founded Wendy's Old Fashioned Hamburgers in 1969, died yesterday after a lengthy battle with liver cancer. He was 69.

Over 30 years, as his fast-food chain grew, Thomas gained widespread popularity as the company's portly, avuncular pitchman. But despite five decades in the food business, his legacy in advertising may prove more enduring.

Thomas started in commercials during a time of waning material culture. It was 1989 and television ads were slick, exploiting the decade's hedonistic "me-first-me-last" ethos.

In his first shoot, as execs from ad agency Bates Worldwide watched with mouths agape, Thomas kept flubbing his "muchas gracias" line. After the umpteenth take, with the crew in near hysterics, he finally nailed it.

It was an awkward, inauspicious debut. No matter. A most unlikely star was born.

Thomas would go on to shoot more than 800 earnest commercials, earning a place in The Guinness Book of World Records and, along the way, reworking industry rules and not-so-true truisms.

He was filmed in airplanes, in racing cars, dining in precious Parisian bistros and countless other exotic backdrops that, paradoxically, showcased Thomas as an Everyman. As a simple messenger with a simple message.

Despite the haughty snickers from advertising observers - who initially saw the commercials as inane and painfully lowbrow - research showed that viewers (read: customers) favoured Thomas' effortless pitching. (He named his restaurant after his daughter Melinda Lou, who was nicknamed Wendy by family and friends.)

Thomas seemed genuine, devoid of the wink-wink, nudge-nudge mannerisms of contemporary hawkers and hucksters. In this sense, Wendy's brand identity was built with almost an anti-brand sensibility.

Nothing fancy. No special effects. No toys or trinkets or national cross-promotions and tie-ins with the entertainment industry. Just the basics: Stress good food, stress good prices.

And as Wendy's moved into more than 34 countries, surpassing 5,700 locations, a quiet transformation was under way: Chairman Mr. Thomas simply became Dave to millions.

Ironically, the company's most famous commercial happened even before Thomas was spokesperson. In 1984 - when Clara Peller, a cranky octogenarian, shouted, "Where's the Beef?" - a cultural phenomenon was born. The three-word line was emblazoned on T-shirts and bumper stickers, and became a punchline on the talk-show circuit. (Walter Mondale even famously used the line against his rival, presidential hopeful Gary Hart.)

Yet the ad failed to improve the bottom line at Wendy's.

By contrast, four years after Thomas starred in his first commercial, Wendy's began growing in market share each year. In the early '90s, as the public accepted Thomas, Wendy's was able to build a long-lasting, successful advertising campaign, despite being outspent by competitors.

As Thomas' identity became more commonplace, a slew of celebrities appeared in spots alongside the tie-wearing, spatula-brandishing founder. Over the years, Thomas exchanged gosh-darn quips with the likes of skater Kristi Yamaguchi, blues great B.B. King and soap opera diva Susan Lucci.

Yet even with a looming celebrity presence, the commercials remained down-to-earth.

Consider this: Thomas spent twice as many years in commercials as Taco Bell's once ubiquitous Chihuahua.

Thomas' popularity derived from subtle contradictions. He was cool because he was anti-cool. He seemed slow in an industry that stressed fast. And his common-sense approach and ho-hum attitude swayed suburbanites disillusioned by the hard-sell.

Asked why the company's hamburgers were square, Thomas replied: "Because we don't cut corners." That revealed much about the man and his approach to ads.

Thomas, once lambasted as a "steer in a half-sleeve shirt" by an ad critic, proved many so-called experts wrong.

But to really understand Thomas and his approach to business, to advertising, to life, read what he wrote in a Grade 10 essay, the year he dropped out of school: "If you're happier driving a truck than being president of a bank, drive a truck. You've got to be happy."


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