Do you remember when the Pillsbury Doughboy used to appear on TV playing a trumpet or electric guitar? How about his brief stint in hip-hop or when he shimmied to the cornbread twist? The late 1980s to early 1990s saw a significant change in the Doughboy’s commercial spots created at ad agency Leo Burnett. Poppin’ Fresh, who had long been animated in stop-motion, was revitalized as a contemporary figure with action spots developed for the MTV generation. He was still helping in the kitchen, but made his grand entrance skateboarding, doing backflips, and dancing. It was the Pillsbury Doughboy 2.0 and perhaps the most memorable campaigns were the ones that exhibited his moments of musical genius.
“Homework Cookie Blues”
“Billy’s got the blues — those homework blues!”
This 1989 spot features the Doughboy playing a harmonica. A young boy named Billy is bummed about his homework pile, but the Doughboy has good news: Mom’s baking Pillsbury’s Best chocolate chip cookies to help chase those blues away.
Poppin’ Fresh is extra lively in this commercial, as he hops down a stack of books and maintains his balance on a rolling tube of cookie dough while expertly whistling into a harmonica. The 30 second spot may look like it was pulled together quickly, but it could take animators a couple days just to get two to three seconds of stop-motion film.
Bill O’Neil, a former stop-motion animator who worked on the Pillsbury campaigns, revealed that the polished Doughboy models seen in commercials didn’t look that way when filming.
“The Doughboy figures were ball and socket armatures. You had to position with his wrist, arm, and shoulder, which gave him enough fluidity to express himself and move around. Holes were drilled into the surfaces he stood on, so his feet could be screwed in and out during walking scenes. Every time he took a step, you had to unscrew and rescrew him back into the surface. A painted rod was attached to his back to help hold him up, too. He was always attached to something that held him up, so a lot of cleaning up and repainting and fixes needed to be done.”
“If you love spaghetti, just like I know you do. Then my soft breadsticks will be a dream come true!”
In this 1989 spot, Poppin’ Fresh has become an opera soloist. He’s serenading a couple enjoying a fancy spaghetti dinner with a song about Pillsbury’s new soft breadsticks.
JoBe Cerny, who has been the Pillsbury Doughboy’s giggle since 1986, reveals that this was the most complicated commercial he ever did for the mascot. “There’s a very high pitch at the end that was difficult to reach because the note was so high!”
While filming stop-motion Pillsbury ads meant there were a lot of people in the room — including animators, lighting team members, and grips — the live action actors you see in the commercials were never actually filmed “with” the Doughboy. “Live scenes were shot separately from the Doughboy,” O’Neil says, “You rarely saw the Doughboy shot in the same scene as the live action people. They would have to know where the Doughboy was and how to interact with him. He was isolated by himself in most of the spots we did.”
“Now here’s a rap that you should know, made with Pillsbury Crescent Rolls!”
The Doughboy made his hip-hop debut throughout the late ‘80s to early 1990s, rapping about how to make the brand’s own pigs in a blanket: hot dogs and cheese baked into a Pillsbury Crescent Roll. The ads proved to be a big hit with audiences and attracted the attention of celebrities too. Cerny shared that the Pillsbury Doughboy was featured on The Oprah Winfrey Show twice in the ‘90s doing the “Wiener Rap.”
Watch any stop-motion commercial featuring the Doughboy and you’ll notice the little guys got a facial expression for every situation. According to O’Neil, the Doughboy had at least 25 different heads in a box that allowed him to represent different vowel and word pronunciations. “You had to plot them out, frame by frame, on a chart and you knew on frame 24 or 25 that his mouth position would be here and there.”
One of O’Neil’s favorite commercials was a spot for Pillsbury Bake Tops where he played the trumpet. “That was fun because he had to have blown cheeks and we had to make new heads for Leo Burnett.”
“Cinnamon Roll Rock”
“It’s Sunday morning. You’re having Pillsbury Cinnamon Rolls when in walks this guy and what does he do? He up and changes your cinnamon roll!”
One of the few musical commercials where the Doughboy isn’t singing or playing an instrument, this 1992 spot for the Cinnamon Roll Rock expanded on how Pillsbury Cinnamon Rolls were now 30% bigger.
If you look closely at early Pillsbury commercials and compare them to contemporary ads, you’ll notice a significant difference in the hand used to poke the Doughboy’s tummy. Fake hands poked his belly for years until a real hand was brought in during the late ‘80s. “A female hand model would come in and poke the Doughboy’s stomach and the stop-motion was masked around where the finger was. We would rotoscope it and do the composites.” O’Neil says.
While the Doughboy is now animated in CGI, O’Neil is still nostalgic for the stop-motion days even though they were challenging. “Stop-motion is a tedious process. It was a bunch of different movements that you had to keep track of and cross your fingers that every shot turned out okay. It was a miracle we could move him frame by frame all day and know what he was doing! But I do miss it. When you look at anything stop-motion animated and understand the labor behind it, there’s something so neat about the technique. It looks different and there’s a different feel to it.”