How the Jolly Green Giant became a real man again

Deutsch NY's redesign has a distinctly analog appeal, and a real-life tough guy in the lead role

Reboots are all the rage. A new actor plays Batman or Spiderman every few years, and "90s kid" nostalgia floods social media. Last fall, Energizer revamped its perpetually drumming pink bunny, one of the most recognizable brand mascots in history. And now, Deutsch New York has completed a nearly year-long redesign of one of the oldest and most beloved ad icons: The Jolly Green Giant.

In two new television spots, the towering figure makes a massive snow angel and takes a dip in a lake, all while proffering new varieties of frozen vegetables to hungry children. "Growing up, we all had this affinity for the Giant," said Dan Kelleher, chief creative officer at Deutsch NY, who spearheaded the redesign. "We wanted to retain everything that was classic and iconic about the Giant."

The new spots are the culmination of a campaign that began on social media four and a half months ago that documented the Giant’s cross country trek from California to New York. But the journey to this latest iteration of the Jolly Green Giant began long before that.

Technically, he’s just the "Green Giant," like the food company he represents, bought from General Mills for $765 million by B&G Foods in 2015. But blame Leo Burnett for the moniker (the man, not the agency). In 1935, the young copywriter put the Giant in his now ubiquitous leafy tunic, improved his posture and made him "Jolly." It was the first major redesign for the character, originally created in 1928 as a stooped caveman. Over the years, he changed with the times. He got a red scarf in 1960 to help him usher in frozen foods. He lost the scarf and got boots instead in 1976.

© Green Giant

He also made multiple appearances on television, typically as a man standing tall astride bountiful crops, laughing his booming laugh and moving very little so as not to crush the little folk below. Deutsch’s new Giant is very much informed by his past selves, purposefully so.

"The most important decision we made was, would we use a real actor?" Kelleher said. The creative team made mock-ups using CGI to compare, but ultimately, they decided to try to stay true to the feel of the older spots, using an actor rather than creating the giant in post-production or using a motion capture suit. And an animated giant "never felt right to us," Kelleher added. Instead, the pointed ears and some of the prominent jaw are prosthetic. His bright green irises are contact lenses.

Of course, that meant finding someone to actually be the Jolly Green Giant. And if the Giant himself is larger than life, so is the actor that portrays him—a Lithuanian cage fighter who also works as a lawyer in London. "It was a little surreal to see him walk into a changing room in a three-piece pinstripe suit and walk back out in a toga made out of leaves," Kelleher said. "What we loved about him was that, in real life, he’s an unusually happy and jovial guy. He’s always smiling, even on 15-hour shoot days while covered in green body paint. And it was very easy for us to see the personality and character of the Jolly Green Giant in his first casting. That was key for us. We wanted the warmth and jolliness of the Giant to come through naturally in the performance."

He also had the right optics—a strong physique like the Giant that looks good in the leaf outfit. The Giant’s legs actually get checked out by a tiny admirer in one of the new spots—a first for any Green Giant campaign. "That joke tested very well," Kelleher said. "And the actor had actually been doing jump squats."

It’s not the only thing that’s changed. Copywriters who worked on early Giant campaigns have told stories of viewers scared by the Giant’s oversized proportions. But today’s audiences are harder to frighten, which gave Deutsch more leeway with the Giant’s actions. "He’s directly interacting with and having fun with people in a way he didn’t used to do," Kelleher said. The spots are meant to be funny, so when the Giant accidentally sits on a man, it’s silly, not tragic.

The combination of comedy and the reliance on cultural touchstones is meant to appeal to a millennial audience, specifically, millennials with young children. A six-year-old probably doesn’t recognize the Giant, but her father does. At the same time, the wares being hawked are vegetables, in nugget form or mixed with rice in ways children may not realize but their parents may appreciate. "What’s great about these new products is that they’re appealing to kids," Kelleher said. "We’re talking to two people at once."

The new campaign is running indefinitely, depending on its reception. Future spots will put the Giant in as yet undetermined situations, but he’ll continue to move and interact with real people, even if all he says is "Ho Ho Ho." But his more talkative companion Sprout could be making a comeback, though it could be 2018 before that happens. The childlike character is more green Smurf than human, so a redesign for him may not follow the same path as the Giant.

Like with those comic book reboots, it’s possible fans may not like what’s been done to a character they love. But Kelleher is confident. "I think the Giant we have now is the best representation of who he is."

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