Wendy’s evokes an ad classic with “Where’s the Bacon?” breakfast campaign

Wendy’s Canada is paying loving homage to arguably the most famous marketing campaign in its 52-year history with a national campaign promoting its new breakfast menu.

Developed by McCann Canada, the campaign’s anchor spot, “Where’s the Bacon?” is an almost shot-for-shot recreation of the QSR’s beloved “Where’s the Beef?” ad from 1984—a spot whose catchphrase would become synonymous with being short-changed, and would eventually be referenced by everything from The Simpsons (of course) to presidential candidates.

McCann creative director Amy O’Neill said the new spot was partly inspired by the fact that grannies have attained a certain degree of cultural cachet in recent years, whether it’s through their popularity and memeability on social platforms like TikTok, or growing demand among younger people for clothing like the “granny cardigan.”

“We just saw a lot of things in culture and social that really made it feel like this was the right time for us to bring back the iconic campaign that Wendy’s did in the 1980s,” said O’Neill.

She and creative partner Bill Schaefer, who’s been working on the Wendy’s business for about seven years, are both huge fans of the original spot, and had been toying with ways of resurrecting it while being mindful of its considerable cultural legacy.

“We know that nostalgia’s really powerful, and we’ve seen reverence among younger generations even for things they weren’t really part of,” said Schaefer. But they also knew that nostalgia alone would not be enough. “I]t was very important that this spot be funny, different and interesting in its own right,” he said.

Like the original ad, “Where’s the Bacon?” features three “grannies”—played by Indrani De Silva, Kathy Imrie and Valerie Boyle in the role made famous by Clara Peller—gathered around an order from one of the big national chains, except this time it’s a breakfast sandwich rather than a hamburger.

“It certainly is a round muffin,” says De Silva’s granny, echoing the “It certainly is a big bun” line that opens the 1984 spot. “It’s a very round muffin” responds Imrie’s granny character, referencing the original spot’s “It’s a very big bun.”

“A very dry round muffin,” adds the first woman as she lifts the top half of the bun to reveal perhaps the world’s saddest breakfast sandwich—a single piece of nearly translucent bacon sitting atop a rubbery looking egg and a slice of processed cheese.

“Where’s the bacon?” asks Boyle, echoing the line that briefly transformed Peller, at the time an 82-year-old former manicurist from Chicago, into an improbable national celebrity.

Directed by Ben/Dave, the updated spot also contains several subtle references to the original, such as the sign in the restaurant reading “Home of the round muffin,” instead of “Home of the big bun” sign seen in the original.

There’s also a similarly institutional feel to the unnamed restaurant chain it’s set in, with the colour scheme (dubbed “undercooked bacon” by the McCann creative team) taken directly from a strip of bacon found on a competitor’s sandwich.

But despite its similarities to the original, Liz Geraghty, chief marketing officer, international with Wendy’s in Columbus, Ohio, said viewers don’t need to be familiar with the 1984 spot to appreciate and understand the updated work.

“The great thing about the work is that it’s fun, and a little bit of an easter egg if you remember ‘Where’s the Beef?’ or have heard of it,” she said. “But if you haven’t, that’s okay too, because it stands alone. In this case, ‘Where’s the Bacon?’ really draws attention to the fact that our bacon is like none other in the category.”

Wendy’s is spending heavily to deliver that bacon message and perhaps make inroads in Canada’s estimated $700 million breakfast sandwich market. The TV/online spot is the cornerstone of a significant national media buy from Initiative that also includes dedicated social ads (a TikTok ad, for example, features the grannies “in the TikTok,” with Boyle’s character asking “How’d we get in your FYP?” a reference to the app’s “For You Page”) and out-of-home.

“When you’re investing that many media dollars and you think about the impact you can have—what’s your message and the creative,” said Geraghty. “”And we wanted the creative to really be something that would stand out given all the investment we’re making.”

McDonald’s, which introduced its McMuffin way back in 1976, is clearly a target here, as are other leading breakfast sandwich purveyors like Tim Hortons and Starbucks.

The campaign arose out of a brief calling for creative that would challenge Wendy’s numerous breakfast competitors, and draw attention to what differentiates its menu items from those of its competitors. Perhaps not surprisingly for a chain that gave the world a sandwich named the Baconator, the quality of its bacon became one of the core messages.

And while it’s common for American brands to repurpose U.S. campaigns for this market, Wendy’s opted to build the Canadian campaign from the ground up. “We can often leverage our U.S. advertising, but we really wanted to make something special for Canada,” said Geraghty. “We did so much to make [the menu] right for Canada, it just felt natural that we should hire some Canadian actresses, shoot it in Canada and really bring it to life uniquely.

The original 1984 campaign was, of course, a legitimate cultural phenomenon, spawning everything from a board game to bumper stickers and even a song by a Nashville artist named Coyote McCloud.

It achieved perhaps its greatest success in that year’s Democratic primaries, when Walter Mondale used it to criticize the policy offerings of his rival, Gary Hart. With the Ontario election just underway, Wendy’s can only hope that it’s new ad gets similar attention from Doug Ford, Andrea Horvath or Steven Del Duca.

Chris Powell