In 1986 the term "viral" didn't exist in its current context of describing a media phenomenon. But if it had, surely we'd have been applied to the remarkable ascent of a bunch of humble, dried grapes from advertising mascots to pop culture icons. The California Raisins were the product of an exacerbated ad team, a few broken rules, and the execution of a fascinating visual art form. Even if you weren't alive to see the advertisements, TV specials or listen to the charting singles, three decades later you've still most certainly heard about The California Raisins through the grapevine.
Let’s be real. Raisins, as a food, aren’t very exciting. That was a widely accepted opinion the California Raisin Advisory Board (CALRAB), a coalition of 5,000 growers in the San Joaquin Valley tasked with increasing the visibility of the wrinkled fruits of their labor, had to face. Throughout the 1970s and 80s, advertising agency Foote, Cone & Belding worked with CALRAB producing raisin commercials that tried everything from branding raisins as “nature’s candy” to slo-mo shots of them as sexy salad and dessert accessories. It wasn’t working. Regardless of consumers’ affinity for the product, people still held a generally neutral-to-negative view of raisins because, well, they’re raisins. They lacked a cool factor, which is precisely why in 1986 ad writer Seth Werner turned to Motown (arguably history’s coolest music) to make the healthy snacks hip.
The Perfect Song
“I Heard It Through the Grapevine” had just seen a resurgence in popularity thanks to its inclusion on the soundtrack of the 1983 Boomers-get-existential film “The Big Chill.” The idea to pair the lyrically apt track with dancing raisins seems almost too cute in retrospect, but with a pitch to CALRAB that included the ad men acting out the dance moves to Marvin Gaye’s version, the farmers agreed it was worth a shot. Former member of The Electric Flag and Jimi Hendrix’s drummer Buddy Miles rerecorded the song, and became the voice that would propel it back onto the Billboard 100.
Related: Waffle House Has its Own Record Label Just to Release Songs About Waffle House
Living and Breathing Food
The task of bringing the raisins to life ultimately landed on the shoulders of a Portland, Oregon-based studio founded by innovative animator Will Vinton. By the mid-1980s, Vinton was already a veteran of stop-motion animation, receiving an Oscar nomination in 1974 for his short film “Closed Mondays,” and releasing the first (and arguably last) fully clay-animated feature film “The Adventures of Mark Twain” in 1985, which showcased the limitless potential of the pliable art form. Vinton had coined the term Claymation back in 1976, but it would take another decade before the medium danced its way into America's living rooms via dried fruit grooving to a catchy tune.
The combination of the dancing raisin concept with clay animation was kismet. “The Raisins really put us and Claymation on the map,” Vinton tells FWx. In the decade before the Raisins, his team had done a lot of commercial work, including the Domino’s Pizza Noid, as well as projects for clients like KFC. But those campaigns were all missing one element. “People were afraid to personify food. There was this unwritten rule in advertising, you don’t represent food as some sort of living and breathing thing. They shied away from it,” Vinton says. With rare exception, that kind of non-edible mascot campaign had persisted since the dawn of TV. “The Noid was a nemesis for bad pizza delivery, not representing the actual product.” Who knows? Had Domino’s tried dancing pepperonis, perhaps we’d be talking about them today instead.