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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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Karl Walter, Getty Images
When the FBI Investigated the 'Murder' of Nine Inch Nails's Trent Reznor
Karl Walter, Getty Images
Karl Walter, Getty Images

The two people standing over the body, Michigan State Police detective Paul Wood told the Hard Copy cameras, “had a distinctive-type uniform on. As I recall: black pants, some type of leather jacket with a design on it, and one was wearing combat boots. The other was wearing what looked like patent leather shoes. So if it was a homicide, I was thinking it was possibly a gang-type homicide.”

Wood was describing a puzzling case local police, state police, and eventually the FBI had worked hard to solve for over a year. The mystery began in 1989, when farmer Robert Reed spotted a circular group of objects floating over his farm just outside of rural Burr Oak, Michigan; it turned out to be a cluster of weather balloons attached to a Super 8 camera.

When the camera landed on his property, the surprised farmer didn't develop the footage—he turned it over to the police. Some local farmers had recently gotten into trouble for letting wild marijuana grow on the edges of their properties, and Reed thought the balloons and camera were a possible surveillance technique. But no state or local jurisdictions used such rudimentary methods, so the state police in East Lansing decided to develop the film. What they saw shocked them.

A city street at night; a lifeless male body with a mysterious substance strewn across his face; two black-clad men standing over the body as the camera swirled away up into the sky, with a third individual seen at the edge of the frame running away, seemingly as fast as possible. Michigan police immediately began analyzing the footage for clues, and noticed the lights of Chicago’s elevated train system, which was over 100 miles away.

It was the first clue in what would become a year-long investigation into what they believed was either a cult killing or gang murder. When they solved the “crime” of what they believed was a real-life snuff film, they were more shocked than when the investigation began: The footage was from the music video for “Down In It,” the debut single from industrial rock band Nine Inch Nails, and the supposed dead body was the group's very-much-alive lead singer, Trent Reznor.

 
 

In 1989, Nine Inch Nails was about to release their debut album, Pretty Hate Machine, which would go on to be certified triple platinum in the United States. The record would define the emerging industrial rock sound that Reznor and his rotating cast of bandmates would experiment with throughout the 1990s and even today on albums like The Downward Spiral and The Slip.

The band chose the song “Down In It”—a track with piercing vocals, pulsing electronic drums, sampled sound effects, and twisted nursery rhyme-inspired lyrics—as Pretty Hate Machine's first single. They began working with H-Gun, a Chicago-based multimedia team led by filmmakers Eric Zimmerman and Benjamin Stokes (who had created videos for such bands as Ministry and Revolting Cocks), and sketched out a rough idea for the music video.

Filmed on location among warehouses and parking garages in Chicago, the video was supposed to culminate in a shot with a leather-jacketed Reznor running to the top of a building, while two then-members of the band followed him wearing studded jumpsuits; the video would fade out with an epic floating zoom shot to imply that Reznor's cornstarch-for-blood-covered character had fallen off the building and died in the street. Because the cash-strapped upstarts didn’t have enough money for a fancy crane to achieve the shot for their video, they opted to tie weather balloons to the camera and let it float up from Reznor, who was lying in the street surrounded by his bandmates. They eventually hoped to play the footage backward to get the shot in the final video.

Instead, the Windy City lived up to its name and quickly whisked the balloons and camera away. With Reznor playing dead and his bandmates looking down at him, only one of the filmmakers noticed. He tried to chase down the runaway camera—which captured his pursuit—but it was lost, forcing them to finish shooting the rest of the video and release it without the planned shot from the missing footage in September of 1989.

Meanwhile, unbeknownst to the band, a drama involving their lost camera was unfolding in southwest Michigan. Police there eventually involved the Chicago police, whose detectives determined that the footage had been filmed in an alley in the city's Fulton River District. After Chicago authorities found no homicide reports matching the footage for the neighborhood and that particular time frame, they handed the video over to the FBI, whose pathologists reportedly said that, based on the substance on the individual, the body in the video was rotting.

 
 

The "substance" in question was actually the result of the low-quality film and the color of the cornstarch on the singer’s face, which had also been incorporated into the press photos for Pretty Hate Machine. It was a nod to the band's early live shows, in which Reznor would spew cornstarch and chocolate syrup on his band members and the audience. “It looks really great under the lights, grungey, a sort of anti-Bon Jovi and the whole glamour thing,” Reznor said in a 1991 interview.

With no other easy options, and in order to generate any leads that might help them identify the victim seen in the video, the authorities distributed flyers to Chicago schools asking if anyone knew any details behind the strange “killing.”

The tactic worked. A local art student was watching MTV in 1991 and saw the distinctive video for “Down In It,” which reminded him of one of the flyers he had seen at school. He contacted the Chicago police to tip them off to who their supposed "murder victim" really was. Nine Inch Nails’s manager was notified, and he told Reznor and the filmmakers what had really happened to their lost footage.

“It’s interesting that our top federal agency, the Federal Bureau of [Investigation], couldn’t crack the Super 8 code,” co-director Zimmerman said in an interview. As for Wood and any embarrassment law enforcement had after the investigation: “I thought it was our duty, one way or the other, to determine what was on that film,” he said.

“My initial reaction was that it was really funny that something could be that blown out of proportion with this many people worked up about it,” Reznor said, and later told an interviewer, “There was talk that I would have to appear and talk to prove that I was alive.” Even though—in the eyes of state, local, and federal authorities—he was reportedly dead for over a year, Reznor didn’t seem to be bothered by it: “Somebody at the FBI had been watching too much Hitchcock or David Lynch or something,” he reasoned.

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Courtesy of Park Circus and MGM
West Side Story Is Returning to Theaters This Weekend
Courtesy of Park Circus and MGM
Courtesy of Park Circus and MGM

As Chris Pratt and a gang of prehistoric creatures get ready to face off against some animated superheroes for this weekend’s box office dominance, an old rivalry is brewing once again on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. West Side Story—Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins’s classic big-screen rendering of Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim’s Broadway musical—is returning to cinemas for the first time in nearly 30 years.

As part of TCM’s Big Screen Classics Series, West Side Story will have special screening engagements at more than 600 theaters across the country on Sunday, June 24 at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. If you can’t make it this weekend, encores will screen at the same time on Wednesday, June 27. The film—which is being re-released courtesy of TCM, Fathom Events, Park Circus, and Metro Goldwyn Mayer—will be presented in its original widescreen format, and include its original mid-film intermission. (Though its 2.5-hour runtime is practically standard nowadays, that wasn’t the case a half-century ago.) The screening will include an introduction and some post-credit commentary by TCM’s Ben Mankiewicz.

West Side Story, which was named Best Picture of 1961, is a musical retelling of Romeo and Juliet that sees star-crossed lovers Maria (Natalie Wood) and Tony (Richard Beymer) navigate the challenges of immigration, racial tension, and inner-city life in mid-century Manhattan—but with lots of singing and dancing. In addition to being named Best Picture, the beloved film took home another nine Oscars, including Best Director, Best Supporting Actor and Actress (for George Chakiris and Rita Moreno, respectively), and Best Music—obviously.

To find out if West Side Story is screening near you, and to purchase tickets, visit Fathom Events’s website.

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