The Pillsbury Doughboy Story: An Ad Icon

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Your brand’s story needs a voice — a character that brings your business to life. This is the purpose of your mascot because the right visual representation has the power to captivate the way the right product packaging entices. It makes your brand recognizable instantly, like Mickey Mouse for Disney, Kool Aid Man for Kool Aid and Michelin Man for Michelin.

And the Pillsbury Doughboy.

How an Advertising Icon was Born

Much like other advertising icons consumers love, the Pillsbury Doughboy was conceived by a creative director. Rudolph Perz was working on ad campaign for Pillsbury’s Crescent Rolls product. Perz was in his kitchen prepping the ready-to-bake product by hitting the canister at the edge of the table to release the dough. It became the Leo Burnett copywriter’s aha moment.

What if a living dough boy came out of the canister, he thought. Perz pitched the idea to Leo Burnett, who then pitched it to the client, Pillsbury. The executives at the General Mills brand (its parent company) loved it, approving 13 Doughboy commercials. That was in 1965.

And so you could say the Pillsbury Dough birth is 1965. But did he immediately take on the look and feel of the ad icon you know?

Perz came up with the mascot’s “costume”: the chef’s hat, big blue eyes, white neckerchief and his jovial demeanor. A sunny disposition that showed even more when the Pillsbury Doughboy was poked in the stomach as he let out a soft chuckle.

But the Pillsbury mascot’s plump look seemed too close to well-known cartoon: Casper the Ghost. Animator Milt Shaffer helped distinguish the advertising icon from the entertainment icon by creating a three-dimensional figure.

The Leo Burnett team then developed a hard version, featuring many heads with different expressions and a rubber version, with an armature that allowed animators to move the character’s arms bit by bit.

The first commercial used the Shaffer-designed doll, which cost about $16,000 and was used for the Crescent Rolls product.

What Did the Pillsbury Doughboy Say?

An advertising mascot’s visual identity is only the first element to ensuring recognition for your brand’s iconic “messenger.” The second element of value to your branding is the voice and the message.

What did the Pillsbury Dough say?

In its 1965 commercial, the advertising mascot popped out of the Pillsbury canister and introduced himself: “Hi! I’m Poppin’ Fresh, the Pillsbury Doughboy . . .” And he went on to talk about the product he was introducing: “ . . . And here’s a poppin’ fresh idea.” A voice over talent would then pick up where the Doughboy left, with yummy shots of the baked goodies.

Poppin’ Fresh would then finish out the TV commercial with: “And Pillsbury says it best.”

Bringing the Pillsbury advertising icon’s warm, friendly personality to life was Paul Frees. Frees, who had done a variety of characters on the animated TV series “Top Cat” and Les aventures de Tintin,” beat out 50 other actors for the job, which included Paul Winchell who voiced Tigger from “Winnie the Pooh.”

Perhaps it was a combination of Poppin’ Fresh’s signature look, his welcoming demeanor and the friendly, pleasant voice that made the Pillsbury mascot gain 87 percent recognition for the brand after in the first three years of his life.

His popularity become even more greater, with many people writing in for autograph requests.

Does Pillsbury Doughboy Have a Wife?

Pillsbury Doughboy
Pillsbury Doughboy

Not only did the Pillsbury Doughboy have a wife — he got an entire family.

In 9173, the pudgy little character for Pillsbury got a companion. The brand named her Poppie Fresh and like her husband, Poppie wore a head dress. But unlike her neckerchief-wearing doughboy, the new Pillsbury character had clothes on; Poppie wore a cute little dress. And she had the same warm, friendly face of Poppin’ Fresh.

Pillsbury went even further with this companionship by adding grandparents in the mix. In 1974, the brand introduced Granmommer and Granpoppper, who sported an imperial handlebar mustache. Later that year, Poppin’ Fresh and Poppie Fresh gave birth to a boy and a girl: Popper and Bun-Bun. Both appeared in a set of finger puppets, along with Flapjack, the dog and Biscuit, the cat.

Does the Pillsbury Doughboy Still Exist?

Pillsbury Doughboy

You may have come across some realistic obituaries for the Pillsbury Doughboy. But these appear to be intended as comic relief, with yeast infection and trauma (from too much belly poking) as the cause of death.

In reality, the now over 50-year-old advertising icon is still around with a recent return to the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in 2021. Although appearances are limited since the brand, along with others, have been sold to Brynwood Partners. No official word has been released whether the new owner of the brand will retire Poppin’ Fresh.

But the iconic commercial character for the baking product has gone through changes, which is essential to stay relevant in a changing marketplace. The ability to change with the times is a crucial part to building a brand.

In the 80s, home baking became less of a priority for women as more entered the workforce. The Pillsbury Doughboy wasn’t as popular in the ‘60s and the ‘70s. So the brand had to freshen up the mascot for a new generation of consumers.

Marketing to more fitness-conscious consumers, Pillsbury Doughboy began skateboarding and skydiving in the late ‘80s. His personality traits become “friend, helper and teacher.” The brand kept the Pillsbury Dough’s wobble and awkward gait but was clear about the look of their icon: in every commercial, Poppin’ Fresh had to be “dough incarnate, with the naivete of a child and the wisdom of a seasoned chef.”

Another change that took place involved the belly poking from a human finger. In every commercial from 1965 through 2005, this classic move prompted a giggle from Poppin’ Fresh. Initially, he would respond with “hee-hee,” and eventually, the brand changed it to, “hoo-hoo.”

Take a Branding Lesson from the Pillsbury Doughboy

Although a mascot may seem like a trivial thing, its value to communicating and establishing your brand will manifest. Pillsbury, along with many other brands, has proven this throughout the years with Poppin’ Fresh.

Like Pillsbury, your brand’s mascot must not only represent a likable personality but echo the values of your business as well. It’s not an easy concept to master, so it’s crucial to seek the creative expertise of an advertising agency (award-winning or not).

Take a lesson out of the Pillsbury Doughboy playbook. And develop your brand’s would-be iconic advertising character.

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