Rudolph Perz first saw the dough boy in his own kitchen. It was 1965. The Leo Burnett copywriter, working on the Pillsbury account, was at his Chicago home preparing Crescent Rolls, a new ready-to-bake product that required the user to hit the canister on the edge of a table to release the dough inside. Perz did this. Then he had an idea: What if a character popped out of the container instead?
So it was that Poppin' Fresh—better known as the Pillsbury Doughboy—was born.
Ever seen him? Of course you have. He's starred in over 600 commercials as "a cute little anthropomorphic embodiment of fresh dough" (to quote the Chicago Tribune) who talks up Pillsbury's products and winds up with a human finger pressing his belly, coaxing his signature, high-pitched "Hoo hoo!" The character and his half-adorable, half-annoying routine has barely changed for half a century.
"Doughboy's look, signature giggle and mannerisms are iconic," said home and lifestyle blogger Heather Taylor, who admits to having been a Pillsbury Doughboy fan since she was in the first grade. "He resonates with all demographics in terms of appearance and age groups. I genuinely don't think he'll ever outlive his usefulness."
Probably not. It's worth noting, though, that the recipe for Doughboy was pretty much a lucky guess. Originally, the character was to be drawn as a cartoon character. But concerns that Doughboy looked too much like Casper the Friendly Ghost prompted Leo Burnett to render him in 3-D. And in 1965, that meant stop-motion animation. The original Doughboy had five bodies and 15 heads, and it took 24 shots to create just one second of animation. (CGI took over in 1992.)
The name Poppin' Fresh never caught on, but the character did—and his run has been remarkably consistent. Three years after his debut, 87 percent of Americans recognized him, and countless millions still do. As recently as 1998, Doughboy received 200 fan letters a week and 1,500 requests for autographed photos. In 2014, when Doughboy guest-starred in a Geico ad (he got a security pat down at the airport), his high-pitched "Hoo hoo!" still delivered the goods even though there wasn't a baked good in sight.
All brands must change with the times, but Doughboy's stubborn sameness might be the reason he's endured. "The Pillsbury Doughboy lives in a kind of cultural permanence category in people's minds, like Mickey Mouse or Charlie Brown," said Charlie Hopper, principal with ad shop Young & Laramore. "Nobody has ever convinced the Pillsbury brand manager to inject irony or actual punch lines into his shtick, and that's been good for his longevity. Doughboy comes in and says his spiel with the same sincerity he had when we were kids. He's simple and boring, but incorruptible."
This story first appeared in the Dec. 7 issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.