PRINT April 1986


Surrealism with everything on it.

SOMETIMES YOU LEAVE THE country for a few days and everything changes. I was away for one week and when I came back Burger King had not only found Herb, but it had destroyed him. The man Burger King had been looking for, touted as the only person in America who had never eaten a Whopper, had been converted. Herb was now traveling around America eating the top of the Burger King line.

When I left the country you could get a Whopper for half price if you went into Burger King and said, “I’m not Herb,” or, if your name actually was Herb, “I’m not the Herb you’re looking for.” At this writing, when you walk into a Burger King you’re supposed to look for Herb, because if you’re the first person to spot Herb in any Burger King restaurant he visits, you win $5,000 and a chance at winning a million.

As much as I hated the Herb ads, I guess I must have identified somewhat with Herb, or at least I felt I was one of his constituents. I wouldn’t eat a Whopper if it were the last hamburger on earth. In fact, I wouldn’t eat a hamburger. And as a vegetarian I felt that it was more than coincidence that the archetypal Whopper abstainer was named Herb, not as in Herbert, but as in Herbivore.

When they interviewed Herb’s mother I resented her for not sticking up for her own flesh and blood, but instead taking the side of the flesh-and-blood peddlers. I hated everyone who testified against Herb in the ads. But it never occurred to me that they would turn Herb into a burgivore.

The first time I saw Herb I didn’t realize I was seeing a Burger King commercial. In fact, I suspected that it might be the new Talking Heads video. Feet in white socks and black clodhopper shoes below loose gray trousers were dancing down the street. It was the kind of dancing that David Byrne does in the film Stop Making Sense, based on agility by implication, i.e., how far can you stumble without falling—virtuoso awkwardness. By the time Herb’s face appeared I already knew he was a nerd.

Well, I should have known that anyone who doesn’t like Whoppers can’t be a dominant male type. But the fact is that Herb has been turned into a sex symbol. Now that he has accepted the Whopper into his life, girls crowd around him screaming, as if he were David Lee Roth.

Somebody told me that Burger King spent $40 million creating Herb, and that he was considered to be something of a fast-food Frankenstein, or the-all-beef equivalent of an albatross. McDonald’s has William “the Refrigerator” Perry of the world-champion Chicago Bears football team selling Big Macs, and Burger King has a nerd. But they couldn’t kill Herb off, they had to go with him.

While Herb was being found I was in London and Dublin, where a good meal can be hard to find. There’s no Herb in London, probably because there isn’t enough airspace for mindless saturation with only one commercial TV station, and that on only half the day or so. Burger King, McDonald’s, and Wendy’s all seemed to be doing quite well.

In Dublin, Burger King is right across from McDonald’s on O’Connell Street. O’Connell is the old main drag, where the statues of the patriots stand, where parades marched and battles raged, where the old hotels and department stores were destroyed by the shells from British warships. Wendy’s is right around the corner from Burger King.

When you’re walking by the Dublin Burger King, if you look like an American, chances are a child will come up to you holding a Burger King paper cup and asking you to buy him or her a hamburger. Maybe what the world likes about us is the worst we have to offer. Burger King can’t be getting over on the food, it must be the artwork. Burger King does what the Comte de Lautréamont and his Surrealist followers only dreamed about. It creates a decadence you can taste.

Burger King sells the whole world the same democratic hamburger and to each burger buyer they say, “Have it your way.” Herb is the world. Herb is the children. And the hamburger is the most symbolic of foods. It is round, like the body of Christ in the Mass, but it’s also hot and juicy Like Frankenstein, it is a body made of many bodies.

Alexandro Jodorowsky, the Mexican film director, once told me that he liked hamburgers because they are symbols of the sun. This might explain McDonald’s’ golden arches. And it might explain the size of the cult devoted to Clara Peller, the crone who wailed, “Where’s the beef?”

Perhaps the seeker of burgers asking “Where’s the beef?” is like the seeker of initiation asking “Where’s the light?” Ask a stupid question, get a stupid answer.

Glenn O’Brien writes a column on advertising for Artforum.