Who Were The California Raisins And Why Were They A Sweeping National Phenomenon For Years?

Raisins might just be one of the hardest foods to market. Despite their relatively low cost to consumers, long shelf life, and high nutritional value, California raisins are a less-than-visually appealing food - even to the most avid fruit lovers. However, in 1986, Will Vinton and his advertising team at Foote, Cone & Belding launched a particularly innovative campaign that revolutionized the California raisin industry for the better part of a decade: the California Raisins. 

A fictional singing group made up of a quartet of claymation raisins who sang popular hit songs, the California Raisins - and Michael Jackson - appeared in television commercials in an effort to create an allure around the rather unremarkable dried fruit. The singing raisins were a hit, and demand for the dried, wrinkly-but-sweet grapes rose to heights unseen since WWII. The rise in popularity of the California Raisins benefited the raisin industry in California, but it also led to the faux band becoming a cultural sensation and releasing albums, merchandise, and even California Raisin Christmas specials. 

However, as with many bands throughout history, The California Raisins' rise to fame was inevitably followed by a fall. By the early '90s, the marketing ploy turned band had dwindled to the ranks of other one-hit wonders, until they gradually fell from public favor - along with the raisin market as a whole.

  • The Singing Claymation Raisins Were A Marketing Attempt To Try ANYTHING To Make Raisins 'Cool'
    Video: YouTube

    The Singing Claymation Raisins Were A Marketing Attempt To Try ANYTHING To Make Raisins 'Cool'

    Raisins have never been a particularly easy fruit to market to consumers. In fact, the market was stuck in a rather steady decline starting in the late 1940s. The end of WWII led to a surplus of raisins in California, as people were no longer purchasing the cheap, dried fruit in large quantities domestically, and Europe was again producing the crop on their home soil. 

    From that point on, the California Raisin Advisory Board (CALRAB) tried everything from government aid to crafty commercials to try to entice would-be consumers back into the arms of California raisin producers. These attempts garnered meager success.

    In the 1970s and '80s, CALRAB began working with advertising agency Foote, Cone & Belding, testing out new marketing avenues for the fruit. Though it eventually found success with the creation of the California Raisins, the advertising agency took a few notable missteps while trying to increase raisins' cool factor.

    For example, they first attempted to market raisins simply as “Nature’s Candy,” and though sweet in sentiment, it didn’t really grab consumers’ attention. This led them to attempt a marketing flip, this time with sensual music playing in the background as raisins fell delicately onto the tops of salads and desserts. This didn’t hit home for US consumers either.

  • The First Hit Commercial Featured The Raisins Singing 'I Heard It Through the Grapevine,' Which Became Their Signature Song
    Video: YouTube

    The First Hit Commercial Featured The Raisins Singing 'I Heard It Through the Grapevine,' Which Became Their Signature Song

    After a number of failed advertising campaigns and steadily dropping raisin sales, Foote, Cone & Belding knew that they needed to get creative. One of the agency’s copywriters, Seth Werner, came up with a particularly off-the-wall idea, and CALRAB thought that it was just crazy enough to work. 

    The idea was to create a television commercial featuring human-like claymation raisins, aptly named “the California Raisins,” who would then sing and dance to the hit song “I Heard It Through the Grapevine.”

    The song had just received a bump in popularity thanks to the successful film The Big Chill and, once paired with the California Raisins singing group (on a $7.5 million advertising budget), it flew to the top of the charts almost instantly - and brought the raisin market with it.

  • Buddy Miles, A Drummer For Jimi Hendrix And Carlos Santana (Among Others), Sang Lead Vocals For The Raisins

    Once the pitch for the commercial was approved by both the agency and the client, CALRAB, the only thing left to do was to create the highly labor-intensive claymation commercial. To do this, the first step was to determine who would voice the characters and do justice to a raisin version of the hit Marvin Gaye song, “I Heard It Through the Grapevine.”

    The keyholder to their success ended up being Buddy Miles, the one-time drummer for Jimi Hendrix and collaborator with Carlos Santana. Miles agreed to voice the raisin and sing the hit song for the commercial.

    This not only earned the California Raisins’ version of the song a spot on the Billboard Hot 100 list, but also aided the success of the campaign as a whole.

  • Will Vinton, Who Invented The Term 'Claymation' And Previously Created The Domino’s Pizza Noid, Designed The Raisins
    Video: YouTube

    Will Vinton, Who Invented The Term 'Claymation' And Previously Created The Domino’s Pizza Noid, Designed The Raisins

    The success of the California Raisins campaign can be credited in great part to the late Will Vinton. Vinton had specialized in clay animation techniques since the early 1970s, and is credited with coming up with the term "claymation."

    Before working on the anthropomorphized raisins, Vinton co-directed an Academy Award-winning short film, Closed Mondays, and created the successful animation for the Domino’s Pizza character, the Noid. 

    When it came time for him to work on the design for the California Raisins, Vinton had a substantial collection of successful claymation projects under his belt. Still, the raisins’ design would prove to be rather difficult to pin down.

    In an interview, Vinton explained that “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.”

    The fact that this was the very task at hand meant Vinton and his team of animators had to make some particularly mindful decisions about the design. It also provided an aesthetic challenge. As Vinton explained, “A raisin is kind of an uninteresting form. It’s a shriveled, dried darkish thing. If you’re not careful it can look like a potato or a turd.”

    This challenge is what led Vinton and his team to design the distinct purple dancing raisins that we know today as the California Raisins.

  • The Raisins Were An Instant Hit And Spawned A Series Of Follow-Up Commercials And Branded Merchandise

    After the success of their first claymation commercial (which took a whopping four months to create), both CALRAB and Foote, Cone & Belding realized that the faux California Raisins band presented an entirely new marketing avenue.

    The first commercial was released in September 1986 and raisin sales spiked by a sudden 20%. New versions of the commercial and hit song were subsequently released - and with the help of various celebrity cameos including Ray Charles, Michael Jackson, and Whoopi Goldberg (though the last one never made it to air). It wasn't long before a formal California Raisins album was released.

    To add to their success, the owners of Hardee’s restaurants reached out to obtain permission to manufacture California Raisins-themed toys to be included in their meals. The California Raisins merchandising snowballed into 300 different products, including clothing, bed sheets, Halloween costumes, car accessories, lunch boxes, and even toilet paper.

  • The Raisins Were Featured In Will Vinton’s ‘Claymation Christmas Celebration’ On CBS In 1987
    Photo: A Claymation Christmas Celebration / CBS

    The Raisins Were Featured In Will Vinton’s ‘Claymation Christmas Celebration’ On CBS In 1987

    By the time Will Vinton was tasked with the design and animation of the first California Raisins commercial, he was already deep into a number of other claymation projects of his own. One such project was a Christmas special entitled A Claymation Christmas Celebration, which he was producing for CBS.

    As soon as Vinton witnessed the rapid success of the California Raisins, he added a slot to his special for the raisins to perform in. The animator choreographed a musical number in which the characters were dressed up “to sing a doo-wop version of ‘Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.’”

    Much like the commercials that preceded it, the Christmas special was a huge success.