Even if you can’t remember what you had for lunch, where you left your keys, or what day of the week it is, we bet you can still remember the tagline for your favorite childhood fast food restaurant. Were you lovin’ it at McDonald’s? Did you have it your way at Burger King? Were you proud to say, “Yo quiero Taco Bell?”
Yes, the menu items were delicious, but it was the fast food ads that lured you in to try the food in the first place. While commercials for perfumes, cars, and phones are sleek and high-tech, fast food advertising is just plain fun.
You probably can’t guess what the first fast food restaurant in the U.S.A. was, though.
No, it was not McDonald’s! The restaurant famous for its golden arches and Happy Meals was founded by two brothers in San Bernardino, CA, in 1948. Although McDonald’s was the first restaurant to use an assembly line to get food out quickly, most historians name White Castle, which opened in Wichita, KS in 1921, as the very first fast food place.
And marketing burgers was an uphill battle from the start.
People back then thought burgers were health hazards! To combat that, the two White Castle founders let customers watch the burger production process, encouraging them to decide how the meal was cooked. And the final product was just five cents.
Of course, not all advertising campaigns went so smoothly. Or maybe they were acceptable at the time, but they’re pretty outrageous or just plain silly now. Here are 23 vintage fast foods ads that range from raunchy to ambitious, from weird to wonderful, and from dubious to downright problematic.
1. Give Mother a “Night Off” at White Castle
Way to go, White Castle — this ad targets busy moms while also subtly implying that cooking was their sole responsibility. This 1930s ad for White Castle suggests that men help out the mother of their children by picking up some burgers for dinner — but only as a rare treat, of course.
2. Women Don’t Leave the Kitchen at Hardee’s
You thought the sexism in these ads couldn’t get any worse? You thought wrong. Just check out this gem from Hardee’s. Most famous in the South and Midwest, Hardee’s was founded by Wilbur Hardee, in Greenville, NC, in 1960.
Luckily we have an antidote to this outrageous message.
In 2018, artist Eli Rezkallah switched the gender roles around to create a series of ads questioning the way women are often portrayed in marketing.
How do you like those apple pies?
3. Do Your Dinnertimin’
We’re still cringing. In the late ’70s, (predominantly white) advertisers attempted to connect with Black consumers. Their solution?
“G-dropping” and using jive slang to appeal to African American communities.
According to Charlton McIlwain, a race and media professor at New York University, the advertising companies were led “to design ads that were racially naive and necessarily relied on stereotypes for lack of any other information.”
4. Showbuz Pizza Palace Was All About Fun
And this horrifying mascot. We’re not sure how the kids seem so chipper when there is a cross-faded weasel-looking mascot right behind them. Also, maybe they should have reconsidered the phrase,
“Put the fun back into eating out.”
Come on, y’all.
5. A Rest During the Rush at KFC
It wasn’t just regular old weeknight dinner the Colonel was keen to help out with back in the day. As this ad shows, he was also available during the holiday period, when wives had even more on their…
Apparently asking the husbands to pitch in was not an option.
6. Burger King serving up straight nightmare fuel
Why is this so creepy? Where do we even start with this one. This 1960s print advertisement for Burger King features a clown with the copy,
“Come as you are!”
It feels like there are other ways they could have gotten this point across that didn’t involve a clown that reminds us of Pennywise.
7. Special Sale at Taco Bell
Before the famous chihuahua was even born, Taco Bell enlisted this cute little boy with a (potentially problematic) sombrero to be the restaurant mascot.
Taco Bell founder, Glen Bell, had a different starting point too.
In 1946, he opened his one-man hot dog stand in San Bernardino, CA — two years before the McDonald brothers opened their first burger restaurant in the very same town!
Bell didn’t switch to tacos until the early 1950s.
Anyone who has waited 30 minutes to spend $10 on a single taco will find the offer in this 1972 ad especially mouthwatering.
8. Go for Goodness at McDonald’s
This 1962 ad claimed McDonald’s was the perfect culinary choice for every member of your terrifying cartoon family. It also reminded people of the convenient drive-thru service.
By the way, McDonald’s wasn’t the first fast food place to have a drive-thru option.
That claim to fame goes to California’s In-N-Out Burger (hence the name!)
According to History.com, the first In-N-Out opened in Baldwin Park, CA, in 1948. It had an intercom system for ordering and no inside seating or parking spots. McDonald’s didn’t open their first drive-thru until 1975.
9. McLean Deluxe at McDonald’s
They really tried. When the earlier ads somehow failed to convince people that their burgers were basically health foods, McDonald’s attempted to go healthy for real.
In 1991, the company released the McLean Deluxe burger.
All the fat from the regular beef burger was replaced with, er, water. And a seaweed extract apparently held everything together. Unsurprisingly, this fast food iteration didn’t take off. People later nicknamed it the McFlopper.
10. Big Daddy Milkshake at Dairy Queen
Dads were also targeted by fast food campaigns. But the marketing strategy was very different, as this 1970 Dairy Queen ad demonstrates.
Moms were pressured to get dinner sorted for everyone and be grateful for rare moments of respite.
Dads, however, only had to enjoy being spoiled with sundaes and malts. Founded in 1940 in Joliet, IL, Dairy Queen started serving malts in 1949.
But it wasn’t until 1985 that the chain started selling its most famous product:
Blizzards, to dads and everyone else.
The frozen treats were an instant hit; Dairy Queen claimed to sell over 175 million that first year alone!
11. Bite Me at Wendy’s
Wendy’s was being saucy way back in 2000. And the chain was certainly not afraid to show their teeth. In fact, of all the fast food restaurants, Wendy’s might have the best Twitter feed.
When they decide to start a beef with their rivals, they fully commit.
Actually, one of the most famous fast food feuds happened in 2017; Wendy’s called McDonald’s out for still using frozen beef.
And they didn’t let it go.
A year later, Wendy’s wished McDonald’s a Happy Frozen Food Day with a savage thread.
Multiple years after their founding, Wendy’s still has plenty of bite.
12. It’ll Blow Your Mind Away at Burger King
While Wendy’s managed to find that fine line between humor and controversy, Burger King tripped right over it.
Their attempt to make fast food sexy, with this unsubtle 2009 ad for a seven-inch sandwich, faced backlash.
The woman model later claimed she didn’t know her image would be used in this way when she took the photos.
13. More than 55% of your protein needs at McDonald’s
Um, where are you getting that statistic from, McDonald’s? In 2004, filmmaker Morgan Spurlock released a documentary called Super Size Me.
In it, he and a team of very concerned doctors monitored what happens when you eat McDonald’s every day for a month.
But McDonald’s was already under fire because of their meals’ poor nutritional content for over a decade by then. The chain responded to these criticisms by trying to convince people that their food was actually healthy, as demonstrated in this 1980s ad from Australia. We’re not so sure the ad worked.
14. I Eat My Heart Out For You at McDonald’s
These creepy Valentine’s cards came out in the mid-70s. They were part of a McDonald’s ad campaign based around a fictional world called McDonaldland, which launched in 1971.
But not everyone was feeling the love.
That same year, Sid and Marty Krofft sued McDonald’s for copyright infringement, arguing that the McDonaldland characters were based on puppets they created for Saturday morning kids’ shows.
In 1977, the court ruled in the Krofft’s favor, and many of the characters were phased out in the mid-80s.
The remaining mascots continued to appear through the late ’90s and early 2000s.
15. Wife-Savers at KFC
In 1968, the Colonel himself oh-so-generously offered to help out busy working wives in this pretty sexist ad. Most modern people would hopefully agree that men and women should be equally capable of cooking a meal.
We’ll leave this one in the ’60s, thanks.
But, this vintage ad targeted at “weary wives” and “working women” gently reminded us that having a career was no excuse for not having dinner on the table when your husband and kids demanded it.
16. Pizza from Pizza Hut
This is more bizarre than anything else. Kids from the ’90s most likely remember Pizza Hut for its identical buildings, glorious buffet, branded decor, and iconic red glasses.
But when this fast food ad came out in 1962, the Hut hadn’t yet landed on its iconic red, black and yellow logo.
Two brothers from Wichita, KS, opened the original pizza parlor in 1958 with a $600 loan from their mom. That’s right; White Castle and Pizza Hut are Wichita neighbors!
17. The Burger King Conversion Kit at Burger King
When this campaign came out in 1983, Burger King knew they were losing the battle to become people’s favorite burger joint. This ad, featuring their signature Whopper sandwich, was an attempt to win customers back. BK returned to this strategy in this TV commercial from 1986.
It directly challenged the McDonald’s McDLT, which was introduced in 1984 and discontinued in 1990.
Unfortunately, despite the bold attitude, Burger King continued to struggle throughout the ’80s.
18. Talkin’ About Salad
We don’t know about you, but we don’t call up our girlfriends just to chat about the high quality of McDonald’s salads. This ad, from the late ’70s, was also part of McDonald’s push to connect with Black consumers.
There’s just a lot to unpack overall.
19. Hot ‘n’ Juicy at Wendy’s
Their burgers may be square, but Wendy’s loves to serve up raunchy double entendres. And this ad from 1977 proves it. Wendy’s first ad campaign used Hot ‘n’ Juicy’ tagline, and it ran through the late ’70s.
If you recognize it from more modern ads, that’s because the company brought the phrase out of retirement in 2011 for a range of burgers called Dave’s Hot ‘N Juicy Cheeseburgers.
Those sandwiches were named after the original Wendy’s father, Dave Thomas, who died in 2002.
20. Steakout Tonight at McDonald’s
Everything about this meal seems somewhat horrifying. Introduced in 1979 and served in certain McDonald’s in the evenings, the McDonald’s Chopped Beefsteak Sandwich was a beef patty topped with onions and steak sauce. It was served on an oblong bun. The sandwich also came with Onion Nuggets on the side and the tagline,
“Now that’s not just another steak sandwich.”
At $1.29, it cost over three times as much as the regular 40¢ burger. Consequently, the McDonald’s corporation discontinued the Beefsteak in the ’80s.
21. Get Sauced At Pizza Hut
Has Pizza Hut always been this cheeky with its advertising? This print ad from 1970 has the copy “get really sauced,” making us wonder if they are talking about the tomato-based ingredient for pizza or something else.
The best part?
They say they “serve the family circle,” which is exactly where everyone gets hammered, right?
22. Are We Not Men? at Wendy’s
For a restaurant named after a woman, Wendy’s apparently doesn’t think that women are up to the challenge of eating the triple-stacked burger featured in this ad from 1999.
This was just one slogan the previously female-friendly chain tried out in the late ’90s in an attempt to go after men aged 18 to 34.
There was also the “Take your hunger out back, kick it in the face and push it off a cliff” campaign.
Hard to tell if they’re trying to sell burgers or challenge people to a duel.
23. Giant Munchkin Doll at Dunkin’ Donuts
This ad isn’t just for donuts, though. It’s strange to see Dunkin’ Donuts without its bubble font and iconic pink and orange coloring in this 1974 ad.
If customers bought a box of Munchkin donut holes and produced an extra 99¢, they could get this two-feet-tall inflatable nightmare.
Munchkins were still pretty new to the brand back then; they first came out in 1972.
24. Unexpected Guests at Burger King
Burger King had some truly interesting ad campaigns. And this 1960s ad is one of the most perplexing; the company decided to let us know the Whopper is a meal fit for a burger burglar. A Hamburglar, perhaps? In fact, the Whopper was introduced in 1957 as an attempt to beat Burger King’s competitors.
It cost 37¢.
It’s been at the center of controversy before: one 2009 ad campaign asked people to delete 10 Facebook friends in exchange for a coupon for a free Whopper (this was when Facebook was the center of the social universe.) Fortunately for friendships everywhere, the social media company intervened, although not before 234,000 people had been unfriended.
25. Free One Dollar Coins at Sonic
In October 1979, Sonic literally paid people to buy their food.
The burger chain started out as a happy accident in 1953. Founder Troy Smith bought a piece of land in Shawnee, OK, that happened to include a hot dog and hamburger stand called Top Hat, intending to open a steak restaurant.
When the hamburgers turned out to be profitable, though, Smith abandoned the steakhouse idea. Instead, he turned the stand into a drive-in restaurant, which eventually turned into a franchise operation named Sonic.
The business hit a roadblock in 1979, however, thanks to overly-rapid growth and the oil crisis.
That may explain this slightly desperate ad.
26. Three Free Hamburgers at White Castle
To get the offer from this 1933 newspaper ad, customers had to bring the coupon and 10 cents. They’d get two burgers at the usual five cent price each plus three freebies.
And we aren’t the only ones interested in White Castle’s changing prices.
The Wall Street Journal did a study comparing how many of the chain’s famous sliders you could get for an hour of work at minimum wage throughout the years, to show how an increasing minimum wage affects pricing. Who knew burgers could be an academic goldmine?
27. PAC-MAN at Arby’s
This one has become something of a collector’s item. Like White Castle and McDonald’s, Arby’s was founded by two brothers, Forrest and Leroy Raffel. They opened their first sandwich shop in Youngstown, OH, in 1964.
The family sold up and retired just 15 years later in 1979, but the ’80s were hard on Arby’s.
Fortunately, though, the chain eventually got funded by Triarc, the company that also owns Wendy’s.
And today, Encyclopedia.com describes Arby’s Inc. as “the world’s largest franchise restaurant system that sells primarily roast beef sandwiches.”
Back in 1980, Arby’s teamed up with pop culture icon PAC-MAN to create these extremely ’80s mementos.
If you look on eBay, you can still find one today!
28. Coleco Pizza Hut
Aspiring pizza chefs could get an early start with this mini pizza oven. Made by Coleco in 1975, the set included the actual oven with the recognizable red Pizza Hut roof, a wooden panel for handling the pizza, tiny plates, and a signpost featuring the Pizza Hut chef mascot.
Manufacturers threw in an instruction booklet with a coupon for a free pizza.
You could also get a Pizza Hut branded Easy-Bake Oven. It had tiny rolling pins and mixes for the dough. Each mini pizza took about 20 minutes to cook and two mouthfuls to eat, though.
So, we’re not sold.
29. Arby’s Roastburger
This Arby’s ad came out in 2009, which is strange, considering its retro vibe. Maybe that’s why the advertisers behind it thought it was okay to associate eating hamburgers with some Freudian desire to… suckle at your mom’s hamburgers?
Not only was it offensive, but it was just plain confusing.
30. In The 1950s, 7-Up Targeted Babies
At just about every fast food chain, sodas like, 7-Up and Coca-Cola. While this isn’t shocking, this advertisement of an 11 month-old guzzling a bottle of 7-Up is truly wild.
The ad goes on to say, “He isn’t our youngest customer by any means,” before letting mothers know they can try mixing the drink in with milk for toddlers that don’t like being coaxed.
Apparently this is a “wholesome combination” and further proof it is the drink designed for your whole family.
Can you think of any other weird or offensive vintage fast food ads?
This list is already pretty long, so we hope not.