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When Ads Go Strange: Orville Redenbacher Returns From the Dead


Digital Dr. Frankensteins revive a beloved personality much to the horror of the viewing public.

Uncanny Valley [uhn-kan'-ee val'-ee] noun.

The theory which states that the closer a non-human figure resembles a person in looks and motion, the greater the empathy in the response -- until a point is reached where the figure can be described as "barely human" and the response becomes that of strong revulsion.

It's the reason zombies are so frightening. It's the reason Ralph Bakshi's rotoscoped animation is so unsettling. It's the reason the 2001 CGI film Final Fantasy: The Sprits Within is said to have bankrupted the company behind it. And it's the reason millions of former Teddy Ruxpin owners still suffer from night terrors.

We see the natural gesture of the hand or the fluid gait in the walk, and we are reminded that we are looking at an unliving thing. Heaven forbid if it can talk.

And those eyes. Those cold, dead eyes.

In January 2007, ConAgra Foods (CAG) scheduled to premiere a television ad during the 64th annual Golden Globe awards. In a company press release, the commercial was to employ revolutionary computer-generated imagery which used "completely believable digitally created actors in live-action settings" and advanced "current techniques tenfold to create an authentic digital human with detail, personality, and close-up realism."

Uh oh.

To create the groundbreaking commercial, ConAgra was teaming up with famed ad agency Crispin, Porter + Bogusky (MDCA) -- the company behind Burger King's (BKC) "Subservient Chicken" and Apple's (AAPL) "I'm a PC" ads -- and the graphics wizards responsible for Titanic, The Day After Tomorrow, and iRobot. And who was directing? None other than the man who oversaw Seven, Fight Club, and Panic Room: David Fincher. The process reportedly took months to execute and aimed to capitalize on the public's love and memory of that sweet popping corn personality Orville Redenbacher. And although the cost wasn't specified, ConAgra's Vice President of Marketing Stan Jacot told USA Today that the ad was the brand's costliest.

Incidentally, this is what aired:

Forget the fact that it appears to be an ad for MP3 players at the start. Disregard the unsettled extras looking on. Even ignore the lips that don't quite match the words being said. How, in the name of all that is holy, could someone look upon the face of that digital demon and remark, "You know, I could really go for something edible?"

Unlike the Dirt Devil ad that featured Fred Astaire dancing with a vacuum cleaner or Groucho Marx gallivanting beside Paula Abdul and a can of Pepsi (PEP), this ad isn't just resurrecting a deceased celebrity for the purposes of hawking a product. By now, the consumer is almost numb to that practice. But at least those commercials used actual cropped footage of the original performers, not a grafted hideous mask of ones and zeroes on a spindly yet spry body double.

And those eyes. Those cold, dead eyes.

Before the ad aired, Orville Redenbacher's grandson Gary remarked that the former popcorn purveyor would have loved the new ads. "He always loved promoting and talking about his popcorn; it was his passion. And these ads capture the passion, sincerity, pride, and commitment grandpa brought to television viewers night after night."

The difference being, with the previous ads, we were able to sleep those nights.

Public response to the ad was one of overwhelming horror. The word "creepy" was the most prevalent descriptor, with one commenter on AOL's (AOL) Slashfood writing:

WOW! Was that creepy or what?! It wasn't even mildly amusing. Not even a shred of irony. Just a creepy digitized dead guy, and we're supposed to accept it as what? Nostalgia? Funny? Campy? I'd love to be a fly on the wall in the ad agency that came up with this one when they gave it final approval. Were they on crack or what? We will never buy that popcorn again -- it would taste like the polyps off Orville Redenbacher's dead neck.

Neither ConAgra nor Crispin Porter + Bogusky responded to Minyanville's requests for an interview to discuss the thought process behind the ad. But actions speak louder than words: The CGI Orville is no longer found on TV or even in the collection of popcorn ads on the brand's official site. The only remaining Orville is the kindly old gentleman who originally sold us the tasty living room snack.

It's hard to believe that the director of the commercial went on to use CGI models to great effect in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. But to no one's surprise, the ad agency was also responsible for resurrecting a once-beloved personality in another bewildering, costly, and colossal misfire of an ad the following year.

(MSFT) Gates and Seinfeld spot.
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