Seth Werner still remembers the night he came up with the idea for the California Raisins.
The year was 1986. Back then, Werner was 31-years-old and had been living and working in San Francisco, California for a year at the ad agency Foote Cone Belding. Mike Koelker, famous for creating the Levi’s “501 Blues” campaign, hired Werner on as a copywriter at FCB.
The dream gig started to sour a bit. Werner quickly found himself growing bored with his workload, which was nowhere near as exciting as Koelker’s work with the Levi’s account. He found himself thinking back on his previous role at Marschalk in New York (an Interpublic agency that was later known as Lowe and Partners and merged with Mullen to create MullenLowe Group). Werner had worked on brands like Stroh’s Beer, Citicorp, and Coca-Cola and knew he was capable of doing more. He went to Koelker to see what could be done and was assigned to work on the account for CalRAB — the California Raisin Advisory Board, better known as the California Raisins today.
CalRAB, according to Koelker, was FCB’s smallest account. It was in need of creative, good work to revitalize sales for a natural fruit that was — appropriately enough — all dried up with consumers.
After receiving the assignment from Koelker, Werner spent the night at a friend’s apartment. His friends, Bill and George, asked him what he was working on and Werner replied he was on the California Raisins account.
“What can you possibly do with that?” his friends asked.
“I will probably do something stupid, like having a bunch of raisins dancing to the song ‘I Heard It Through the Grapevine.’” Werner replied.
That was Werner’s light bulb moment. “I remember thinking, hey wait a second, maybe that isn’t so stupid,” he said.
Werner got to work on the idea the next day, sitting with FCB art director Dexter Fedor to strategize on how to execute it. As characters, the Raisins (capital R) were meant to come in a cluster because Werner pointed out that, “people don’t eat raisins one at a time.” These Raisins would form both a conga line and their own singing group.
While the Raisins didn’t initially have names or a lead singer, they did have their signature tune “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” to serenade audiences. Out of all the musical genres to choose from, Werner picked the classic inspired by his childhood love for Motown music. He also felt it was a fit for the assignment, since raisins were once grapes, and that the song brought a sense of “cool” to the campaign. Which, for Werner, was kind of the point. “We were just going for cool.”
As for the animation, Werner wasn’t interested in drawings of characters. He wanted to do something that felt real and felt that clay animation was the best way to go. When his initial contact on the project didn’t work out, Werner turned to stop-motion director Will Vinton, founder of Will Vinton Studios, with his scripts. Then and now, Vinton was a pioneer in the clay animation space and even coined (and trademarked) the word “Claymation.”
Werner worked alongside Will and his team to produce the first commercial, which he describes as a “painstaking” process. A few days spent working in stop-motion generally produces only a few seconds of film, which was exactly what happened with the Claymation California Raisins. “There were 30 frames in a second and 30 seconds in a commercial. One frame would be photographed at a time, then the Raisin’s position would be moved and you would snap another frame. Will and his team would do one scene at a time and then send it to us for our comments.” Werner recalls.
In the months it took to shoot the single commercial, Werner worked out the musical kinks. He originally hired San Francisco-based Mark and Jeff’s Jingle Company to do the music. Mark Keller provided the vocals in the first-ever spot “Late Show” while vocalist and producer Buddy Miles took over in the second commercial “Lunch Box.”
As for the iconic song, Werner says it cost $250,000 a year to license. The overall budget for the CalRAB campaign was $5 million. While five million (even back then) wasn’t a lot of money for a national account, Werner leapt on the opportunity to secure the popular song since it wasn’t something being done in commercials at the time.
Werner presented the idea not just to the client, but to the entire CalRAB board. “I remember putting on white gloves and dancing as we played the music and described the spot.” The vote was unanimous across the board — everyone was in favor of, and loved, the dancing Raisins.
Nobody could have been prepared for what happened next when the commercial debuted in September 1986.
“Basically, it went viral before there was such a thing.” Phone calls poured in to TV stations and letters were written to CalRAB, FCB, and the networks from fans praising the commercial. The media hailed the success of the campaign and the ad industry recognized its greatness with a showering of awards. The California Raisins were so popular that they eventually spun off their own Saturday morning cartoon and holiday specials. They had their own LP albums and fan club. Michael Jackson is even immortalized as one, and rumor has it that he asked to do the spot for free.
But, that particular story is one that Werner has only heard through the grapevine. He left FCB after working on the first two commercials and headed to the Bloom Agency (which later became Publicis) in Dallas, Texas as the agency’s Executive Creative Director and President. Now he has his own shop, the seven-year-old Big Idea Group, in Charlotte, North Carolina.
When looking back on the surprise success of the California Raisins, Werner considers the campaign, and its soulful mascots, a stroke of good luck. “I always said they got more famous than I did and I never regretted it. It was something that happened to be in the right place at the right time.”
Werner does harbor some worries that many generations today wouldn’t know much about the California Raisins or grasp the lasting effects that brand mascots have on consumers. He’s even spoken to the board about considering a revival. “I believe mascots are important because they can take an inanimate object, product, or service and humanize it to get people to like the brand. In the end, I’m always preaching it’s not just what your brand is, but who.”