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The California Raisins: How A Bunch of Dried Grapes Became A Hit Band

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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.

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13 Salty Facts About Mr. Peanut
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In 2016, the dapper little legume known as Mr. Peanut celebrated his 100th year of peddling Planters peanuts, putting him on the Mount Rushmore of food mascots. As the literal face of America's peanut industry, we’ve assembled some facts and history about this shell of a man in honor of National Peanut Day (which is today, September 13).

1. HE WAS CREATED BY A 14-YEAR-OLD.

Mr. Peanut wasn’t hatched from a cynical ad firm brainstorming session. His adorable visage was the product of a 14-year-old from Suffolk, Virginia named Antonio Gentile. Gentile entered a contest held by the Planters Chocolate and Nut Company in 1916 to crown a new peanut mascot. The aspiring Don Draper sketched out a doodle of a “Mr. P. Nut” strutting with a cane. After getting freshened up by a graphic designer—including donning his trademark spats and monocle—Gentile’s design was picked up and he was awarded $5.

(Postscript: The Gentile family became friendly with the Obici family, owners of the Planters empire, and Gentile’s nephews once suggested that the Obicis helped put him through medical school; he became a surgeon.)

2. HE HAS A FULL NAME.

According to Planters, Mr. Peanut is something of an informal moniker. The full name given to him by Gentile was Bartholomew Richard Fitzgerald-Smythe.

3. HE ONCE WEIGHED OVER 300 POUNDS.

Although peanuts can be a highly sensible snack, full of healthy fats and protein, they can also be a source of too many calories. Case in point: the 300-pound cast iron Mr. Peanut, a display item made in the 1920s and 1930s. Planters would use the heavyset mascot on top of a fence post at their Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania factory.

4. HE SURVIVED THE GREAT DEPRESSION.

During the economic downturn of the 1930s, things like “snacks” and “nutrition” suddenly became optional rather than expected. Though many food products struggled to cope with slimmed-down wallets, Planters plastered Mr. Peanut on bags of peanuts that sold for just five cents each. Declaring it a “nickel lunch,” the company was able to use the affordability of peanuts as a selling point.

5. HE WENT TO WAR.

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Specifically, World War II. When the U.S. entered the conflict, Mr. Peanut volunteered for service as a character featured on stamps and propaganda posters.

6. HE’S A MONOCLE ENTHUSIAST.

Food mascots rarely take sides on hot-button issues, but Mr. Peanut made an exception in 2014 when a fashion movement threatened the return of the monocle. After getting wind of men wearing the single-lens reading accessory, Mr. P issued a press release stating that he took notice of the “hipsters” following in his “stylish footsteps” and implied few could pull it off. The monocle has yet to fully re-emerge.

7. THE NUTMOBILE PREDATES THE WIENERMOBILE.

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Though the Oscar Mayer Wienermobile usually takes most of the engine-driven PR credit, Planters actually introduced the NUTMobile, a shell-shaped portable advertising car, in 1935—a year prior to the Wienermobile’s introduction. A Planters salesman designed and drove the car, adding a decorative Mr. Peanut passenger behind him. (Mr. Peanut did not operate the vehicle because Mr. Peanut is not real.)

8. HE’S IN THE SMITHSONIAN.

How influential has Mr. Peanut been to the food industry? In 2013, the Smithsonian admitted his cast-iron incarnation into its National Museum of American History. The statue was exhibited as part of a series on marketing for the institution’s American Enterprise series; Antonio Gentile’s family also donated his original sketches for posterity.

9. FANS DIDN’T WANT HIM TO CHANGE.

Planters

For the company's 100th anniversary in 2006, Planters held an online vote to see whether peanut aficionados wanted to see Mr. Peanut experiment with a sartorial change: Fans could vote for adding cufflinks, a bow tie, or a pocket watch. In the end, the ballot determined they wanted to keep him just the way he is.

10. HE HAS A FAN CLUB.

Mr. Peanut has appeared in so many different licensed products in an effort to expand his popularity—clocks, peanut butter grinders, and coloring books among them—that a collector was having trouble keeping track of them all. In 1978, Judith Walthall founded Peanut Pals, a Mr. Peanut appreciation club that circulates a newsletter and holds conventions. You can join for $20—practically peanuts.

11. HE HAS REMAINED MOSTLY SILENT.

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Mr. Peanut was already a few decades old when television came into prominence, which afforded him an opportunity to jump off packaging and magazine pages. Despite the new medium, Planters decided they liked him best when he didn’t talk—at all. The mascot was silent all the way up until 2010, when Robert Downey Jr. was commissioned to deliver his first lines. Bill Hader currently provides his voice.

12. HE FOUND A BUDDY.

When Planters unveiled an updated Mr. Peanut for contemporary audiences in 2010, he was sporting a grey flannel suit as well as a new sidekick—Benson, a shorter, single-peanut tagalong. A Planters spokesman clarified to The New York Times that the two are “just friends” and live in separate residences.

13. HE ONCE RAN FOR MAYOR OF VANCOUVER.

Amid a burgeoning alternative art scene in 1970s Vancouver, a performance artist named Vincent Trasov decided it would be interesting to run for mayor of the city while in the guise of Mr. Peanut. Hailing from the “Peanut Party” and meant to be a commentary of the Nixon-era absurdities of politics, he was endorsed by novelist William S. Burroughs and received 2685 ballots—3.4 percent of the vote.

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A Brief History of DayGlo
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In 1933, a student at the University of California named Bob Switzer fell and hit his head. He had been removing boxes from a freight car for a summer job when he tumbled off the loading dock and was knocked unconscious.

Months later, Switzer awoke from a coma with blurred vision. To continue his recuperation, his doctor recommended avoiding bright light. His father, a pharmacist, turned his shop's basement into a darkroom for Bob's recovery.

That sparked Bob’s interest in ultraviolet, or black, light. Bob's younger brother, Joe, was a chemistry student and an amateur magician who was also interested in the black arts—playing with ultraviolet light and fluorescence (not sorcery) to create the illusion of objects appearing and disappearing on a darkened stage. Hoping to find chemical compounds that would glow in UV light, the brothers mixed the pharmacy’s supply of Murine eye wash with alcohol and white shellac, which created a fluorescent yellow substance under black lights.

The Switzer brothers’ breakthrough would eventually lead to their development of a dazzling fluorescent rainbow of pigments, which they trademarked as DayGlo colors. From traffic-cone orange to Pepto Bismol pink to yellow the shade of Mountain Dew, DayGlo’s colors have been used in industrial machinery, safety equipment, and psychedelic posters. The eye-popping palette has been saving lives and expanding consciousness for more than eight decades.

At first, Joe put the yellow dye to work in his magic show. In his signature act, a woman appeared on a darkened stage wearing a costume and headdress of fluorescent painted paper. Lit only by UV light, Joe would take the woman’s headdress off in one direction while the woman danced in the opposite direction, so her head appeared to separate from her body. With this trick, Joe won the prize at the Pacific Coast Association of Magicians in 1934 and created a fan base willing to spend $10 a pint for fluorescent paints. Bob and Joe thus established their first company, Fluor-S-Art Co.

By the summer of 1935 the Switzers had moved to Cleveland, where they worked for a subsidiary of Warner Brothers, creating dramatic special-effects scenes called “midnight paintings” for movie theater lobbies. The glowing tableaux appeared to transform when a black spotlight switched to a white light. This effect worked well in the darkness of theaters. But when the brothers tried to branch out to painting traditional billboards and store advertisements, regular white light sources faded the colors.

Bob and Joe continued to experiment, hoping to create a luminous paint that shined in daylight. In 1936 they created their first batch of pigments that reflected visible color from the spectrum, while also absorbing and transforming UV wavelengths of colors lower in the spectrum. As a result, viewers perceived a more intense, dazzling color. The first products were patented in 1937 as DayGlo fluorescents.

Initially, DayGlo colors were used for commercial advertisements. But when World War II erupted, the dyes found a new niche. The military spent $12 million on DayGlo dyes for safety applications like flags or painted signals that could be seen by airplanes 10,000 feet in the air, buoys that marked where underwater mines had been cleared, and suits worn by aircraft carrier crew to guide nighttime plane landings. Thanks to the colors’ use in safety fabrics, Joe and Bob Switzer became very rich.

During this time, the Switzers also developed black light penetrants, a type of pigment that reveals flaws in machinery when painted on the metal parts and exposed to UV light. Patented as Magnaglo and Zyglo, they became widely used by the U.S. Air Force for ensuring the integrity of airplane parts.

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After World War II, Bob and Joe founded Switzer Brothers, Inc., later renamed the DayGlo Color Corporation. The company continued its production of flaw-revealing pigments, but now began to experiment with producing daylight fluorescent colors for consumer product packaging. In 1957, the company patented a process that combined fluorescent dye with a polymer, which gave the dye greater light stability for use as outdoor paints as well as in traditional printing applications.

The company convinced advertisers to adopt its super-fluorescent inks and papers, and in 1959, Proctor & Gamble opted to package its Tide laundry detergent, the first heavy-duty synthetic soap, in the Switzers' Blaze Orange hue. Soon, the DayGlo fad expanded from supermarket shelves to clothing, toys, and rock n’ roll posters in the 1960s. Pop artists like Peter Max and Andy Warhol incorporated psychedelic colors into trippy paintings and lithographs.

DayGlo eventually reached the zenith of pop culture relevance when the Beatles wore military-style suits in DayGlo colors on the cover of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band in 1967.

The Switzer brothers’ legacy shines on in their rainbow of trademark high-visibility tones—Saturn Yellow, Blaze Orange, Aurora Pink, Neon Red, Corona Magenta, Signal Green and many more—that are found on everything from food wrappers to public safety workers today.

In 2012, the American Chemical Society awarded DayGlo Color Corporation a national historic chemical landmark designation for the development of its pigments, citing the Switzer brothers' inventions as a “symbol of safety and protection that improve our daily lives.”

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