It was a time of great upheaval: the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Beatles, the assassination of John F. Kennedy, youth gone mad on America’s streets. But into the great unmooring of the 1960s came a floury savior: the Pillsbury Doughboy.
The decade of the Kennedys and Martin Luther King was “a period of migration, uprootedness, role changes and separations,” a 1991 paper on the effectiveness of cartoon characters in advertising concluded — “a comforting substitute for the familiar face of local merchants.”
“Everytime I see the housewife poke him in the tummy, I wish I was her,” one fan letter read.
This week, Pillsbury — which has hawked its products with the Doughboy, a.k.a. Poppin’ Fresh, for 50 years — marked a sad chapter in the advertising icon’s history. Rudy Perz, who created the Doughboy in 1965, died on Wednesday at 89.
“We are saddened by the loss of Rudy Perz. Nearly 50 years ago, he created one of America’s most loved and adored characters, the Pillsbury Doughboy,” Liz Nordlie, president of Pillsbury, said in a statement, as the Chicago Tribune reported. “Our thoughts are with Rudy’s family during this difficult time.”
Perz, an advertising copywriter, invented the Doughboy while at the Leo Burnett Company. His initial vision of the Poppin’ Fresh was an animated character, but he was struck by stop-motion animation in the opening credits of “The Dinah Shore Show” — and feared the drawn Doughboy looked too much like Casper the Friendly Ghost. So a clay Doughboy was created for $16,000.
It was a smart move: Within three years of his introduction, the Doughboy had an “87 percent recognition factor” among consumers — as General Mills, which acquired Pillsbury in 2001, explained in promotional materials — and since then has lent his face to 600 commercials for more than 500 products. A Poppin’ Fresh doll that hit the market in 1973 became the nation’s No. 3 toy, after Frisbees and rubber balls.
The character “is very versatile,” the company said. “He has been an opera singer, a rap artist, a rock star, a poet, a painter, a ballet dancer, a skydiver and skateboarder. He has also been seen playing the harmonica, accordion, bugle, electric guitar and violin.”
But the Doughboy, now the product of computer animation, wouldn’t be part of just any old ad. A 2000 Salon article explained that Pillsbury established strict guidelines about what its trademark could and couldn’t do — and nixed a collaboration with the “Got Milk?” campaign that involved Poppin’ Fresh sneakily drinking the last of the milk in a family’s refrigerator.
“The Pillsbury guidelines stipulate that the Doughboy must always be a helper, a teacher or a friend,” an executive who pitched the campaign said. “Our spot showed the Doughboy drinking the last of the milk. Therefore he wasn’t being a helper. He wasn’t being a teacher. And he certainly wasn’t being a friend.”