Alibi V.16 No.7 • Feb 15-21, 2007 

Idiot Box

Night of the Living Deadenbacher

Orville’s back!

Thanks to strict censorship and the bad timing of commercial breaks, broadcast television is rarely a scary affair. Classic horror series like “Dark Shadows” and “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” aren’t particularly remembered for their bowel-loosening terror. Even a truly frightening movie like The Exorcist is rendered tame when all the curse words are edited out (“Your mother sews socks in hell”?) and the puke-spewing is interrupted by an ad for Maalox.

But recently, I witnessed something so horrifying on television that it reduced me to a babbling, weeping fetal position underneath my living room end table. I speak of the gruesome resurrection of popcorn king Orville Redenbacher!

The grandfatherly Redenbacher passed away in 1995, leaving his popcorn empire in the hands of food industry giant ConAgra. Most of us assumed that would be the last we’d see of the bespectacled spokesperson. We were wrong. Dead wrong.

It’s not that Madison Avenue hasn’t tried to bring back beloved icons from the great beyond before. A decade or so after his passing, Kentucky Fried Chicken tried to recreate the Colonel in cartoon form (voiced, incongruously, by Randy Quaid). He didn’t last long. Hoover once digitally inserted Fred Astaire into a vacuum cleaner ad, allowing the deceased hoofer to hawk a new generation of products.

But never before has the advertising industry attempted the unholy act that it has with Mr. Redenbacher.

He appears suddenly on the screen, glowering out at you like the girl from The Ring. His trademark horn-rim glasses and bow tie are intact. But something’s amiss. For starters, he’s wearing an iPod--a device created long after his death. “These MP3 players get lighter every day,” he cracks. “But if you want something light and fluffy, you’ve got to try my famous gourmet popping corn.”

The spot was designed by ad agency Crispin & Bogusky (famed for creating Burger King’s creepy King character). Instead of simply casting a new Mr. Redenbacher, the company used a combination of archival footage, digital manipulation and human prosthetics to bring Redenbacher back from the dead. The problem is that he doesn’t look even remotely alive. The stiff-faced ghoul seems poised to rip the flesh off his skull at the end of every commercial, suddenly grinning at you from under his thick glasses and popping fluffy white kernels into his bony, lipless jaw.

ConAgra claims that, within three days of the commercial’s launch, they had 35 million PR impressions in broadcast and print media. Granted, nearly all of them (like this one) were negative. An blog featuring the video, for example, racked up dozens of scathing comments. But you know the advertising business: No publicity is bad publicity. If people are talking about scary, undead Orville Redenbacher, maybe they’re out there buying his popcorn. Personally, I doubt it.

Me, I don’t even want to go into the popcorn aisle at the supermarket now on the off chance I might run into a shambling, partially animated corpse in a red bow tie slurring his new catchphrase, “I’m going to eat your brains ... or my name’s not Orville Redenbacher.”