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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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#TBT
The Highs and Lows of the Dell Dude
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John Lamparski/Getty Images for Hulu

Benjamin Curtis was just 19 years old when he went to the open audition that would change his life, but he still felt like a senior citizen. He was surrounded by child actors from the ages of 12 to 17, most of them accompanied by their mothers. The group was part of a casting call for Dell, the personal computing company well-known to business and educational customers but an unproven commodity for the home market.

Dell’s ad agency, Lowe Worldwide, hoped to change that reputation by introducing the character of Steven, a sharp, tech-savvy teen who would extol the virtues of Dell’s desktop and laptop offerings in a charmingly goofy manner. Even though he was two years outside the age range, Curtis’s agent believed he had a shot.

He read. And read again. And then read a third time. By December 2000, Curtis had gotten the part and was quickly becoming known as the “Dell Dude,” a pitchman who rivaled the Maytag Man in terms of commercial popularity. But by 2003, the character would disappear, victimized by a peculiar kind of corporate hypocrisy. While the Dell Dude’s stoner wisdom was good for laughs and increased sales, Curtis being arrested for actual marijuana possession was not.

In 1984, Michael Dell was a pre-med student at the University of Texas when he began tinkering with home computing hardware. A serial entrepreneur—he once made $18,000 as a teenager collecting data to find new subscribers for the Houston Post—Dell figured that custom machines and aggressive customer support would help fill a niche in the growing PC market.

He was right. Dell racked up $1 million in sales that year and spent the next decade and a half expanding into a billion-dollar enterprise. But a lot of Dell’s business consisted of commercial accounts like schools and government offices, leaving direct-to-consumer sales largely untapped. To help introduce Dell to those users, the company hired Lowe Worldwide to create a campaign that would appeal to people who felt intimidated by the personal computing phenomenon.

Lowe conceived of a precocious kid who could rattle off Dell’s specs and lend a human face to their line of hardware. But the “Dell Dude” wasn’t fully realized until Curtis walked in the door.

Originally from Chattanooga, Tennessee, Curtis grew up interested in performing magic and drifted toward theater in an attempt to strengthen his stage presence. He went on to earn an acting scholarship to New York University and had a roommate who knew a commercial talent agent. Having been introduced to her, he began going out on casting calls. One of them was for Dell.

Embodied by Curtis, the Steven character morphed into a Jeff Spicoli-esque surfer archetype, fast-talking and charming. In his first appearance, Steven makes a videotaped appeal to his father for an $849 Dell desktop “with a free DVD upgrade” because he knows his dad “likes free stuff.” In another, he encourages a friend’s family to gift his buddy with a Dell for $799, complete with an Intel Pentium III processor.

The commercials debuted in 2000, but it wasn’t until DDB, the Chicago ad agency that took over Dell’s account, introduced a catchphrase that Steven acquired his nickname. In his fourth commercial, he announced to his friend, “Dude you’re getting a Dell!”

From that point on, Dell’s splash into residential home computing was guaranteed. Sales rose 100 percent, with Dell’s market share growing by 16.5 percent. The awareness was almost exclusively the result of Curtis’s popularity, which grew to include numerous online fan pages and calls for personal appearances. Younger viewers wrote in and wondered if he was available for dates; older viewers considered him a non-threatening presence.

By 2002, Steven had starred in more than two dozen Dell spots. In some of the later ads, he took a back seat, appearing toward the end of the ads. The cameos prompted some concern among fans that Dell would be sidelining Curtis, but company representatives denied it. In early 2003, however, the Dell Dude found himself out of a job.

“Dude, you’re getting a cell” was the headline in media accounts of Curtis’s arrest in February 2003 on suspicion of attempting to purchase marijuana. Curtis was on Manhattan’s Lower East Side and sporting a kilt he recently acquired in Scotland when an undercover officer spotted him purchasing the drug from a dealer. After being held in custody overnight, Curtis was released and the case was adjourned. If he stayed out of trouble for a year, his record would be expunged.

The New York Times compared the relative innocuousness of his arrest to that of actor Robert Mitchum, who was arrested on a marijuana-related charge in 1948. Despite living in a more conservative era, Mitchum’s career was largely unaffected. The same didn’t hold true for Curtis, however; he was promptly dropped by Dell as their spokesperson. According to Curtis, the company had a strict no-drugs policy for employees, and one strike was all it took to force his dismissal.

Feeling ostracized from commercial work and typecast by the role, Curtis juggled gigs while working at a Mexican restaurant in New York and enduring daily recognition from customers. “They’ll get really drunk, and they’ll start yelling things at me,” he told Grub Street in 2007. “I either ignore them, or if it’s way out of hand, I go up and say, ‘I appreciate your support, but my name is Ben.’ That usually doesn’t work so I smile and ignore them.”

Dell never found a mascot as well-liked as Curtis. They hired singer Sheryl Crow to appear in spots beginning in 2005, but she didn't sway consumers as much as Steven had. In 2010, the company attempted to battle back from negative press over selling defective computers to customers between 2003 and 2005. Today, they typically occupy a list of the top three PC companies, trailing Lenovo and HP.

Curtis, meanwhile, made a segue into off-Broadway performing and now operates Soul Fit NYC, a holistic wellness center in New York that offers yoga, massage, personal training, and life coaching services. Although he’s expressed interest in coming back to Dell as a spokesperson, the company may not appreciate his latest indiscretion: In 2013, he admitted to owning a MacBook.

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Sarah Mahala Photography & Makeup Artistry, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 2.0
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History
Why Lucky the Leprechaun Was Missing From Some Lucky Charms Boxes in 1975
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Sarah Mahala Photography & Makeup Artistry, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 2.0

It’s hard to picture a box of Lucky Charms without a smiling leprechaun plastered on the front of it. But cereal fans living in New England in the 1970s may remember a brief period when Lucky was nowhere to be seen. In his place was a forgetful wizard who was barely given a chance to make a blip in cereal mascot history.

As Atlas Obscura shared in a recent story, Waldo the Wizard became the face of Lucky Charms in select stores in 1975. At that point, Lucky had been representing the brand since it was introduced over a decade earlier, but General Mills was toying with going in a different direction with the marketing.

Lucky’s shtick hasn’t changed much since Lucky Charms was introduced in 1964: In commercials, the leprechaun is enjoying his treasured cereal when a group of hungry kids comes along. Instead of offering to share, Lucky plots to keep his Lucky Charms to himself and always fails. It’s not exactly controversial as far as kids' ads go, but in the mid-1970s, executives worried that the mascot's unfriendly attitude towards children would rub consumers the wrong way.

Enter Waldo: a wizard who wore a green cloak spangled with hearts, stars, clovers, and moons, and, like Lucky, adored Lucky Charms. But unlike Lucky, Waldo was always warm with kids and never hesitated to share his breakfast. Instead of running away, his gag was that he was always forgetting where he put his box of Lucky Charms, to which the kids responded by reminding him that he could just conjure some up with magic.

Shoppers responded positively to Waldo during his trial run in New England stores, but after less than a year, General Mills pulled the plug on the experiment. It turned out that having a slightly more innocuous character wasn’t worth abandoning the original mascot after spending so much time and money promoting him.

While he’s undergone a few redesigns in the past 50 years, Lucky is still prominently displayed on every box of Lucky Charms. His cereal-hoarding tendencies have also remained the same, though Lucky was written to be a bit friendlier following Waldo’s short-lived era.

[h/t Atlas Obscura]

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