With a $7.5 million dollar ad campaign teetering dangerously close to being lost, Seth Werner, a 31-year-old copywriter at the ad agency Foote, Cone & Belding, knew it was show time. Moments after walking into the pitch meeting, Werner pressed play on his cassette player. After a brief period of awkward idleness, Werner began to shimmy his way across the meeting room floor as the Motown hit “I Heard It Through The Grapevine” bellowed from Werner’s boom box.
On September 14, 1986, Werner’s ad pitch came to life… sort of. In a single 30-second TV spot, The California Raisins took American pop culture by storm. An arrival so dramatic, that the Kool-Aid Man himself smashed through a few walls, drink in hand, yelling “Oh yeah!” The anthropomorphized raisins immediately won the hearts and minds of TV viewers with their plump, expression filled appearance, their hypnotic dance moves, and unquestionable swagger.
More commercials followed, along with a Billboard Hot 100 hit, platinum studio albums, and an Emmy. But how did a group of dried-up grapes; a snack that every kid dreaded seeing in the bottom of their Halloween candy bag, become so popular, so quickly?
Shaping an Emotional Connection… with Raisins
Blessed by the California Raisin Advisory Board, a trade group of raisin producers, the commercial was part of an advertising campaign designed to address the decline in raisin sales by shaping an emotional connection between consumers… and yes, raisins.
To win over consumers, Werner and his cohorts knew they had a fight on their hands. While the health benefits of raisins were widely known, consumers had a much stronger connection to products with strong brand personalities. And when one thinks about a shriveled-up grape, an endearing personality doesn’t quickly come to mind.
Raisins needed personality; they needed to be cool. Werner and his copywriter, Dexter Fedor, envisioned raisins with high-top sneakers, funky shades, and a little lean in their step. To bring all of this swagger together into a realistic and relatable lifeform, the ad men decided upon clay animation, or Claymation, as it would later be coined.
With their vision cast, the ad team knew they had to bring in the big guns to pull this ridiculous idea off. Enter Will Vinton, a Portland, Oregon-based animator who just a decade earlier had won an Oscar for the animated short film “Closed Mondays,” and who would later trademark the term “Claymation.”
Vinton’s clay animation process required the careful frame-by-frame study of real-life dancers. His animators would then sculpt each character from clay, arrange it on set, photograph it, and then move it slightly for the next shot.
This type of stop-motion animation was (and still is) very laborious, requiring approximately 24 frames-per-second. To create a 30-second commercial, 720 frames or “stops” would be required. Each stop entailed a carefully composed photograph which, when shown in sequence, would achieve the illusion of movement. At just 30-seconds long, the commercial took Vinton’s team nearly four months to complete.
Bring the Funk
What does one pair with dried grapes, clay, and an Oscar-award winning animator? Jimi Hendrix’s drummer and a Carlos Santana collaborator of course. Duh!
Buddy Miles was hired to sing “I Heard It Through The Grapevine”. The song was an obvious choice due its connection to raisins, but also because it had recently soared in popularity after the Marvin Gaye version had been used in the 1983 hit movie The Big Chill.
TV audiences ate up the R&B sound of The California Raisins’ “Grapevine”, so much so that the song reached No. 84 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1988. Audiences also ate more raisins, which after all, was the whole purpose of the campaign in the first place.
Peak of Fame
Between 1987 and 1988, the Raisins pumped out four R&B albums, two of which went platinum. Even celebrated musicians clamored to collaborate with the Raisins. Ray Charles morphed into clay to sing “Grapevine” and the King of Pop, Michael Jackson, also joined in on the fun. In close collaboration with Vinton, Jackson’s Claymation raisin was quintessential Jackson, sporting a single white glove and gyrating as only Jackson could.
The California Raisins, with the help of Vinton, parlayed their musical success into several television specials. In 1987, Vinton produced a Christmas TV special, A Claymation Christmas Celebration, that featured the Raisins singing “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” and won Vinton an Emmy for Outstanding Animated Program.
The following year, Vinton and the Raisins collaborated on another TV special called Meet The Raisins! The mockumentary delved into the full backstory of the band and into the lives of each Raisin. Then in 1989, the Raisins released a 13-episode run of the Saturday Morning Cartoon show, The California Raisin Show.
Icons of 80s Pop Culture
Vinton tried to squeeze a little more juice out of the Raisins with another Claymation TV movie in 1990, but it fell flat. Rising production costs, along with a decline in popularity, made it impossible for the California Raisin Advisory Board to keep the band together. The Raisins had lost their grip on pop culture. The 80s gave way to the 90s and the Raisins were consigned to fad status.
During their peak, the Raisins produced platinum albums, won an Emmy, had their own television series, formed business partnerships with Post’s Raisin Bran cereal and Hardee’s—which produced the collectible Raisins—garnered the attention of celebrities, had their own fan club, a merchandise line, and a series of comic books.
It’s said that imitation is the greatest form of flattery. Fawning over the commercial success of the Raisins, brands and advertisers looked to the meteoric rise of the Raisins for inspiration. Brands such as M&Ms, Kellogg’s Mini Wheats, and Chips Ahoy all turned to anthropomorphized food or candy in an attempt to create an emotional connection with their consumers. However, despite their best efforts, none have been able to recreate the excitement and fan fervor brought on by The California Raisins.