When Seth Werner, a 31-year-old copywriter at the ad agency Foote, Cone & Belding, walked into the pitch meeting, he knew he had to put on a show. This client had been with his agency for over a decade, and though they'd had some fairly successful campaigns in the past, the client's main product was slipping in sales. Werner's big idea was going to be a risk, especially without the celebrity spokesperson the client had requested. And so, with a $7.5 million campaign on the line, Werner hit play and began dancing across the room to the old Motown hit "I Heard it Through the Grapevine."
First aired on September 14, 1986, Werner's idea for a 30-second television commercial introduced audiences to The California Raisins, a group of anthropomorphized raisins with expressive eyebrows, stylish shoes, and the slickest dance moves since the Chiquita Banana shimmied into advertising in the 1940s. People loved the singing, dancing Claymation raisins so much that more commercials followed, and—in a marketing scheme that was virtually unheard of at the time—The California Raisins went on to release four albums, score a Billboard Hot 100 hit, and earn an Emmy nomination (and appear in an Emmy-winning show). But how did a bunch of dried grapes, burdened with the reputation of being a mediocre, boring snack, become synonymous with swagger?
Commissioned by the California Raisin Advisory Board (CALRAB), a trade group of raisin producers in California’s Central Valley, the commercial was part of a multi-million dollar campaign to combat slowing raisin sales. CALRAB teamed up with advertising agency Foote, Cone & Belding to try to forge an emotional connection between consumers and the dried fruit. The problem, FCB's account supervisor said at the time, was that though customers understood the health benefits of raisins, they had emotional connections with various vice products, like cigarettes because of the long-running "Marlboro Man" ads, or beer based on the popular "Miller Time" ads.
Werner and his copywriting partner, Dexter Fedor, knew that they needed to make the dried fruit less of an afterthought—the raisins needed personality. They needed to be the life of the snack bar. "We decided that we wanted the raisins to be cool and a bit intimidating," Werner said. The answer? High-top sneakers, sunglasses, and endless swagger. Werner and Fedor also thought that the commercial should use clay animation, a type of stop-motion animation using characters or settings made out of clay or other similarly pliable materials, rather than regular cartoon animation. And though the process is time-consuming and expensive, Werner's performance managed to win them over. CALRAB gave the "Grapevine" pitch the green light.
With a budget in hand, the agency hired Will Vinton, the Oscar-winning animator who would later trademark the term "Claymation," to help create their vision of dancing raisins. Vinton and his team hired human dancers to make the Raisins's dance moves look realistic. Because animators arranged each shot by hand, giving each raisin its own distinct personality (including individualized facial expressions and colorful sunglasses), the commercial took more than a month to shoot.
As for the music, the commercial featured Buddy Miles, a Carlos Santana collaborator and drummer for Jimi Hendrix, singing "I Heard It Through The Grapevine"—picked because of the obvious connection between grapes and raisins, but also because the song had seen a resurgence after the Marvin Gaye version had been used for the opening scene of the 1983 hit movie The Big Chill.
Audiences quickly connected with the Raisins’ authentic R&B sound, and The California Raisins’ version of "Grapevine" even reached No. 84 on the Billboard Hot 100. Between 1987 and 1988, the fictional band released four albums, two of which went platinum. More than 2 million people bought their albums and listened to the Raisins covering songs including "Lean on Me" and "You Can’t Hurry Love." Sales of raisins themselves increased 20 percent after the first commercial.
Musicians such as Ray Charles and Michael Jackson even got in on the raisin action, singing their own versions of "I Heard It Through The Grapevine" for later commercials. Jackson, who agreed to do his commercial for free (and on the condition that he only work with Vinton, who he knew from their Captain EO project with Disney), helped create his own Claymation raisin with his signature single white glove, fedora, and pelvic-thrusting dance moves.
Besides appearing in short commercials, The California Raisins shared their musical chops in television specials. In 1987, Vinton featured the Raisins singing "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" in A Claymation Christmas Celebration, a Christmas TV special he produced that won an Emmy for Outstanding Animated Program. The following year, Vinton created another TV special called Meet The Raisins! The mockumentary-style show created a full backstory about the band’s rise to stardom and delved into the histories of each of the individual Raisins, who had names by this point—A.C., Beebop, Stretch, and Red. Needless to say, their band history borrowed heavily from the types of origin stories real bands tended to have. Then in 1989, a 13-episode Saturday Morning Cartoon show called The California Raisin Show aired.
But the Raisins’s influence went beyond just TV and music and began to invade all levels of pop culture. During the peak of their popularity in the late '80s, the California Raisins also had a fan club, merchandise that spanned from plush toys to lunch boxes to air fresheners, and a series of comic books. Post's Raisin Bran cereal took advantage of the increasingly popular dried fruit and teamed up with the Raisins to help promote their boxed cereal, and fast food chain Hardee’s bought a license to produce the incredibly popular collectible Raisins figurines.
Although Vinton made one last Claymation TV movie about the Raisins in 1990, the end of the '80s brought a decline in the Raisins’s popularity. It began to cost CALRAB too much to market the Raisins, and the public moved on. But thanks to the California Raisins, it’s now commonplace to see ads that include anthropomorphized food or candy. "The Raisins opened up a floodgate … everything had to be personified," Vinton told Food & Wine last year. While today’s commercials may depict M&Ms and cookies with unique personas, the California Raisins hold a special place as '80s pop culture icons.