It was the death of a corporate executive, but somehow it felt more like a death in the family. I never met Dave Thomas. But like thousands of pilgrims who flocked to pay their respects at Wendy's restaurants and headquarters last week, I felt that I knew him—through his commercials.
His television success was extraordinary and contradictory. A warm guy in a cool medium, he stood out for his squareness, all elbows and forearms emerging from a dumpy drip-dry shirt. His trademark half-sleeved shirt and red tie were pure Dilbert, but Dave Thomas built the world's third-largest fast-food chain through his unique honesty, smarts and mop-and-bucket work ethic—the antithesis of a dweeb in a cube buried in corporate bureaucracy.
Few people were more self-made than Dave. His story is so old-style Horatio Alger-ish that he seemed to have been born more than a century—not a mere 20 or 30 years—before the tech entrepreneurs (he died at 69).
He never knew his birth mother and was adopted by a Michigan couple (Thomas would become a passionate advocate for adoption). His adoptive mother died when he was 5, and his father remarried three times. The dad kept moving, and losing jobs. Since they often lived in a room without a kitchen, they ate out every night.
Diners became Dave's version of home—a place to be with family—and restaurant food became his version of "home cookin'.'' Thomas' deep-seated belief that inexpensive restaurants with quality food were some kind of oasis was key to the values he brought to the business, and the advertising.
He started working at a Walgreens soda fountain when he was 12. In the 10th grade in Fort Wayne, Ind., when his father moved again, Thomas stayed behind, dropping out of school to work full-time. He not only supported himself, he developed a gen ius for the restaurant business.
That said, he had absolutely no aptitude for acting—on camera, he was "a giant lox,'' says Paul Basile, the executive creative director and art director at Bates who began working with Thomas in 1989 and stayed on for the entire run. "He'd mix up words, screw up the dialogue, miss his cues, look into the lens, hit the furniture." Basile also tells a famous story—that after 60 or so takes on an early spot, he said to Thomas, "Remember we just told you to be yourself? Well ... why don't you try being someone else?''
He couldn't. He looked natural enough turning burgers or carrying a tray, but everything else was a stretch. Perhaps that was why it was shocking to learn that Thomas had appeared in hundreds of ads—more than all other CEO pitchpeople combined. Because in every spot, he seemed the same—low-key, easy to take. How ever elaborately the team at Bates set him up (on a bike, looking like Snoopy in a race car, at a hockey rink, sliding his oversize body next to an anorexic dish of nouvelle cuisine), he was his own stolid, twinkly, unmovable self.
Even though the spots were only mildly smile-producing, that aggregate of genuine Daveness is what resonated: It made the commercials feel like home, like what Dave was looking for all his life, something familiar and reassuring rather than invasive and objectionable. And that allowed him to connect with us again and again—as opposed to most other endorsers, who wear out their welcome by the third or fourth spot.
Consistency is underrated in advertising. Too many shake-ups—changes of top people, marketing teams, agencies—is death to the brand identity. (Wendy's says new advertising without Thomas is being filmed now for airing in the spring and that it will have a similar "tonality.'')
Give Dave Thomas a spatula and he could move the earth. Put him in a commercial and he didn't move much -- but he was unforgettable.