He’s dead, but still poppin’

Marketplace Staff Mar 1, 2007

He’s dead, but still poppin’

Marketplace Staff Mar 1, 2007

BOB MOON: Everybody knows you can’t bring back the dead, but that hasn’t stopped people from trying.

ConAgra foods just rolled out some new commercials featuring Orville Redenbacher. The popcorn guru died more than a decade ago. But in the new ads, he’s been digitally reanimated — yes, I said reanimated — to make his pitch to a new generation.

Chicago Public Radio’s Mike Rhee takes a closer look at whether the idea — forgive this one — is all it’s popped up to be.

ORVILLE REDENBACHER: Hello, I’m Orville Redenbacher.

MIKE RHEE: Now, to be clear, it’s really not. But let’s keep going.

REDENBACHER: These MP3 players get lighter every day. Would you believe this little baby holds 30 gigs? [RING!] But if you want light and fluffy, you’ve gotta try my famous gourmet popping corn.

This commercial features what looks to be a grandfatherly Orville Redenbacher. He’s beaming as he holds a slick MP3 player that didn’t exist in his day, and touts his famous popcorn brand.

Until now, companies made commercials by splicing old film clips of the rich and famous into new situations. Or by adding new elements, like a vacuum cleaner. The Redenbacher commercial is the first to recreate a famous dead guy digitally and have him acting in completely new ways.

But some viewers got the feeling something just wasn’t right.

KEN WHEATON: I had heard that it was coming. It was just horrible. I was surprised at how bad it looked.

That’s Ken Wheaton, features editor for Advertising Age. Wheaton says Ad Age posted the commercial on its website and got 11,000 hits within a few days.But the strong response wasn’t necessarily positive.

WHEATON: The eyes seem, you know, sort of dead and black. And the face looked rubbery. A number of commenters pointed out that at . . . you know, they thought it was someone in a mask at first. And they were expecting a punchline, you know . . . the guy to rip the mask off and be the grandson, or something like that.

Wheaton says some people were so disturbed by the commercial they said they wouldn’t eat popcorn ever again.

What went wrong?

A hypothesis called the “Uncanny Valley” might hold the answer. Back in 1970, a Japanese professor named Masahiro Mori identified a threshold you can cross when you make robots. The more real they seem, the creepier they can get.

Karl MacDorman specializes in researching human-robot interaction at Indiana University. He says the uncanny valley could just as well apply to computer animation.

KARL MACDORMAN: If something is very close to human, then it’s bringing on more expectations of what a human should be. And because it’s being held up to a higher standard, then we find it strange when that standard is violated.

That probably wasn’t what ConAgra Foods intended, especially since the ad was one of the most expensive the company has ever produced.

But not everyone thinks the recreation has to be realistic. Orville Redenbacher’s grandson, Gary, says the ad’s more about bringing back a sentiment.

GARY REDENBACHER: What it comes down to, for me, is its level of authenticity. How do you accurately capture the passion, the quirkiness that was Grandpa? An actor is always going to bring his own interpretation, but here, we’re being as loyal as possible to that heritage.

Younger people who aren’t familiar with the original Orville Redenbacher might not notice the difference, Gary Redenbacher says. And if that’s the case, TV viewers could be in store for even more digital imposters of the deceased — selling, well, anything.

In Chicago, I’m Mike Rhee for Marketplace.

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