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A Fast Food Eulogy

By Gil Sennett · January 31st, 2002 · Ad Nauseam
Ah, Dave Thomas. We hardly knew ye.

Yours was a life filled with bad ties and square hamburgers. How will your legacy stack up to the great fast-food mascots of history?

As far back as I can remember, you were the face of Wendy's. Oh sure, we had that interesting but highly overrated "Where's the beef?" lady episode. But really, aside from a catchy tagline, what did Clara Peller have to offer? No, you were the juggernaut of Wendy's advertising.

It's strange, though, why you ever got the call from the bullpen? The starter, Wendy herself, never really took off. She, with her curly red hair, could easily have become the perennial, identifiable Wendy's mascot. (Although, admittedly, she works better in cartoon form than in real life. Just like Popeye.) Perhaps she'll come back with you out of the game?

For all your quirks -- and at this point, we'll call awful line readings and hammy expressions "quirks" -- you still anchored a pretty decent campaign. It's obvious you sought the more mature crowd. Why else would you, a gentle 60-something, be the frontman? Plus, the whole vibe of your ads were retro. Like your restaurants: "Old-fashioned Hamburgers."

The question is how you compare to the great burgermen of history? How will the next generation compare to you?

We like you and all, but there is no more famous mascot than the red-haired clown, Ronald McDonald.

It makes sense, you would admit, since his restaurant is the granddaddy of all fast food. But that hardly means he was a better pitchman.

Recall the old days when Ronald appeared with his many "friends"? Hamburglar? A big lumpy purple thing who smiles a lot called Grimace? And what in God's name were the Fry Guys supposed to be?

Needless to say, only Ronald survived the commercial attrition. Not sure why. He's no less weird than the other McDonald mascots. But he does have that instant recognition going for him. Too bad the ads hardly let him speak anymore. These days, Ronald has nothing on you.

Shall we mention Frisch's Big Boy, another coiffure oddity? The pudgy dude just freaks people out, with his big eyes and checkered overalls. Staying power: nil.

How about the Colonel? Completely un-PC Colonel Sanders went through a few variations (real actor and then animated) during his years selling Kentucky Fried Chicken. But he always seemed second-rate, like a bad punch-line to a worse joke.

Today's mascots don't appear to challenge your legacy either. That may be because hardly anyone is using a traditional spokesperson anymore.

We have slimmed-down Jared from Subway. The reason he's en vogue is also the reason he's so flavor-of-the-month. Really, people. What happens when Jared puts a little of that weight back on? Gones-ville.

Taco Bell barely uses an ongoing mascot, which is somewhat bewildering. They retired the Chihuahua before he ever staled. That sounds smart in theory, but what if he would have remained relevant for another three years? The good folks at the Border have some identity issues they must resolve before they approach your status.

Same goes for Burger King. Can you remember anyone pitching Whoppers?

Dearest Dave, the only guy to watch out for is Jason Alexander, KFC's celeb du jour. He has a nice tone, isn't as cheesy as you were (even in your prime) and he seems at home in the role.

Yet ole George Costanza has two Biggie-sized challenges in front of him, if he expects to one day sit at your right hand in fast food heaven. First, he's still too new to us to really judge him. For all we know, he could get annoying next week. Then he's done for.

Lastly, he could bail on the gig before he ever gets momentum. It was odd to see him on so soon after he was riding the Seinfeld wave. But if his failed sitcom Bob Patterson is any indication, perhaps we should expect a long KFC career for Jason.

If he wants to follow anyone's path, Dave, we all think it should be yours. Godspeed, burgerman.



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