When a computer generated version of the late popcorn pitchman Orville Redenbacher started appearing in television commercials in January, it sent a shiver down viewers’ spines. In one spot, an eerily lifelike CGI version of Redenbacher—the folksy founder of one of the leading American brands of popcorn, who died in 1995—brandished an MP3 player as he extolled the virtues of his “popping corn” to a group of office workers. The reanimated Redenbacher wasn’t lifelike enough, however; the commercial sparked a torrent of discussion about the odd way Redenbacher’s mouth moved, and the lifelessness of his eyes. The CGI huckster was called creepy, zombie-like, and quickly dubbed “Deadenbacher.”
But the undead Redenbacher may have popped his last kernel. The agency that created the ads, Crispin Porter + Bogusky—the brains behind controversial spots like Volkswagen’s “Un-pimp Your Ride” series and Burger King’s “Subservient Chicken”—has lost the Orville Redenbacher’s account. ConAgra Foods has moved the brand to another agency as part of what a spokesperson says is a “streamlining” process that is unrelated to the content of the ads. Nonetheless, it likely spells the end for this CGI ad experiment.
“It was all the rage in the marketing press in terms of a discussion point,” says University of Western Ontario marketing professor Robin Ritchie. While old film footage has been used to insert dead stars into live action commercials, CP+B’s spots were the first-ever attempt at digitally recreating a dead spokesman. “People were fascinated to see this happening. The advertising agency said, ‘Now’s the time to bring this guy back. He’s a wonderful pitchman, he embodies the brand, and he should be talking to our consumers.’ But my goodness, if there isn’t something just very odd about taking a real guy who died and bringing him back to sell products.
“This was a first and, if we’re all very lucky, a last,” Ritchie says of the computer generated Redenbacher. “It’s not even that it’s disrespectful, though it may be—it’s just icky.” M
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