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.

5 Clues Daenerys Targaryen Will Die in the Final Season of Game of Thrones

HBO
HBO

by Mason Segall

The final season of HBO's epic Game of Thrones is hovering on the horizon like a lazy sun and, at the end of the day, fans have only one real question about how it will end: Who will sit the Iron Throne? One of the major contenders is Daenerys of the thousand-and-one names, who not only has one of the most legitimate claims to the throne, but probably deserves it the most.

However, Game of Thrones has a habit of killing off main characters, particularly honorable ones, often in brutal and graphic ways. And unfortunately, there's already been some foreshadowing that writers will paint a target on Daenerys's back.

5. THE PROPHECIES

Carice van Houten in 'Game of Thrones'
Helen Sloan, HBO

What's a good fantasy story without a few prophecies hanging over people's heads? While the books the show is based on have a few more than usual, the main prophecy of Game of Thrones is Melisandre's rants about "the prince that was promised," basically her faith's version of a messiah.

Melisandre currently believes both Daenerys and Jon Snow somehow fulfill the prophecy, but her previous pick for the position died a grisly death, so maybe her endorsement isn't a good sign.

4. TYRION'S DEMANDS FOR A SUCCESSOR

Peter Dinklage and Emilia Clarke in a scene from 'Game of Thrones'
HBO

A particular scene in season seven saw Tyrion advising Daenerys to name a successor before she travels north to help Jon. She challenges him, "You want to know who sits on the Iron Throne after I'm dead. Is that it?" But that's exactly it. Tyrion is more than aware how mortal people are and wants to take precautions. He's seen enough monarchs die that he probably knows what warning signs to look for.

3. A FAMILY LEGACY

David Rintoul as the Mad King in 'Game of Thrones'
HBO

Daenerys is the daughter of the Mad King Aerys II, a paranoid pyromaniac of a monarch. More than once, Daenerys has been compared to her father, particularly in her more ruthless moments. Aerys was killed because of his insanity and arrogance. If Daenerys starts displaying more of his mental illness, she might follow in his footsteps to the grave.

2. HER DRAGONS AREN'T INVINCIBLE

Emilia Clarke in 'Game of Thrones'
HBO

The fall and subsequent resurrection of the dragon Viserion was one of the biggest surprises of season seven. Not only did it destroy one of Daenerys's trump cards, but it proved that her other two dragons were vulnerable as well. Since the three-headed dragon is the sigil of her house, this might be an omen that Daenerys is next on the chopping block.

1. THAT VISION

Emilia Clarke in 'Game of Thrones'
HBO

All the way back in season two, Daenerys received a vision in the House of the Undying of the great hall in King's Landing ransacked and covered in snow. Before she could even touch the iron throne, she was called away by her dragons and was confronted by her deceased husband and son. This is a clear indication that she might never sit the throne, something that would only happen if she were dead.

10 Surprising Facts About Peter Dinklage

Larry Busacca, Getty Images for Sundance Film Festival
Larry Busacca, Getty Images for Sundance Film Festival

The modern man of Game of Thrones’s ancient world, the solitary railroad enthusiast of The Station Agent, the non-elf of Elf. Peter Dinklage is one of a kind. A leading man with strength, vulnerability, and a cartoonishly thick head of hair, he’s delivered a slew of memorable roles marked by a sardonic sense of humor.

He has also survived a seven-year bloodbath in Westeros. So far. We have to wait almost a year to learn his ultimate fate on Game of Thrones, but we can get to some facts about the Emmy and Golden Globe winner right now.

1. HIS FIRST TASTE OF ACTING CAME IN FIFTH GRADE.

Like more than a few of his colleagues, Peter Dinklage caught the acting bug as an adolescent, appearing in a lead role in a performance of The Velveteen Rabbit in fifth grade. “When you get your first solo bow, that feels pretty good,” Dinklage told People. Despite its lack of rabbits, he also credited watching Sam Shepard’s True West in 1984 as a major inspiration to pursue acting as a profession.

2. HE REFUSED TO PLAY STEREOTYPICAL ROLES—EVEN WHEN MONEY WAS TIGHT.

When Dinklage was surviving the salad days in a New York City apartment filled with rats, he had offers to play elves and leprechauns, but he turned down those paychecks out of principle. It created a short-term setback (at least when it came to paying rent), but his tenacity eventually paid off with roles like the one in Elf that challenged clichés. He was even careful when Game of Thrones came calling, recognizing the way dwarves normally look in fantasy projects. “[Tyrion Lannister’s] somebody who turned that on its head,” he told The New York Times. “No beard, no pointy shoes, a romantic, real human being."

3. HE WAS IN A PUNK-FUNK-RAP BAND.

What does that genre blend sound like? Hard to say, but the band was called Whizzy, and they played CBGB, where Dinklage got the notable scar along the side of his face. "I was jumping around onstage and got accidentally kneed in the temple," he told Playboy. "I was like Sid Vicious, just bleeding all over the stage. Blood was going everywhere. I just grabbed a dirty bar napkin and dabbed my head and went on with the show. We didn’t care much about personal safety."

4. HIS MOM TOLD HIM HE WAS GOING TO LOSE THE GOLDEN GLOBE TO GUY PEARCE.

Peter Dinklage in 'Game of Thrones'
HBO

Before Dinklage won the Golden Globe for Game of Thrones in 2012, he spoke with his mom back in New Jersey, who told him, “Have fun, but have you seen Mildred Pierce? Guy Pearce is so good. He’s gonna win.” He wryly noted how moms keep us all humble.

5. HE’S AN OUTSPOKEN VEGETARIAN.

Dinklage has been a vegetarian since childhood, and he has used his fame as a platform to speak out on animal rights issues. That includes telling Game of Thrones fans to stop adopting Huskies after the breed’s popularity (and abandonment rate) shot through the roof thanks to the show’s dire wolves.

6. HE STARRED IN THE SAME MOVIE TWICE.

In Death at a Funeral, Dinklage played Peter, the American man who surprises a family by showing up at the patriarch’s funeral claiming to be the old man’s lover. Directed by Frank Oz with a stellar British ensemble, the movie was popular enough to warrant an American remake, and Dinklage returned to play the same role with a completely different cast and Neil LaBute as director.

7. HE SAW A STRANGER DIE.

One morning in Los Angeles, Dinklage was walking down Melrose Avenue when he met eyes with a man on a motorcycle who pulled out into traffic, got hit by a car, and died. “It was in the morning, so there was no one around, you know?” he told Esquire. “It was empty, so there was this quiet moment where it was like I was the only person in the world who knew this guy was dead."

8. THE SWORD FIGHTS ON GAME OF THRONES DON’T MAKE HIM FEEL COOL.

Smiting foes on the field of battle would be enough to make a lot of actors feel powerful, but not Dinklage. “The fight scenes are all a big lie,” he told Playboy. “The whole time you’re trying not to get hit in the eye with a sword, and you wish you had on a welding helmet.” To drive the point home, he explained one shot where he cuts a knight’s leg off involved him swinging a blunt sword at a 70-year-old amputee.

9. HE GREW UP NEXT TO BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN’S MANAGER.

Dinklage's family’s next-door neighbor in Brookside, New Jersey, was The Boss’s manager, which meant Springsteen regularly played guitar just one house down. Dinklage’s parents also heard Springsteen play at a wedding in a surfboard factory but complained that he was “too loud.”

10. HE READS THE GAME OF THRONES SCRIPTS IN A SPECIAL WAY.

Actors Emilia Clarke, Sean Bean, and Peter Dinklage speak during the 'Game of Thrones' panel at the HBO portion of the 2011 Winter TCA press tour held at the Langham Hotel on January 7, 2011 in Pasadena, California
Frederick M. Brown, Getty Images

Specifically, he reads them backwards. “The first thing I really do when I get the scripts is I go to the last page of the last episode and then look backward until I find my name to see if I survive,” he told Entertainment Weekly.

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