You may have heard through the grapevine that the 1980s featured a musical group that took the nation by storm in the name of promoting California Raisins, but you may not know the story behind the fad that would be considered a viral sensation by today’s standards.
Raisins are not very exciting, so getting some national attention was going to be a challenge for raisin growers. Back in the late ’80s, the California Raisin Advisory Board (CALRAB) wanted to increase the visibility of the fruit of their labor. Working with the advertising agency Foote, Cone and Belding, the organization tried many different strategies to raise the popularity of raisins, but nothing seemed to be working.
This all changed when, according to Food & Wine, in 1986 the group hired writer Seth Werner and stop-motion animator Will Vinton to create a commercial for raisins. They used the classic song “I Heard it through the Grapevine,” for the obvious grape connection. The song had seen a resurgence in popularity thanks to its use in the hit film, “The Big Chill.”
The commercial featured a band of raisins singing the song, which was voiced by Buddy Miles, a Carlos Santana collaborator and drummer for Jimi Hendrix. The commercial did so well that the song reached number 84 on the Billboard Hot 100 and — more importantly for CALRAB — it helped raise the sale of raisins by 20 percent.
What happened next really was the ’80s version of going viral. Many more commercials using the raisins were made with different versions of the new theme song. The popularity of the commercials attracted celebrities like Ray Charles and even Michael Jackson, who collaborated on the campaign.
During that time, the California Raisins released not one, two, or three, but four albums. Two of those albums went platinum.
The raisins did not stop there, as Viton featured the group in a claymation Christmas special – “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” – which won an Emmy for Outstanding Animated Program. They later got their own special titled, “Meet the Raisins!” which gave names and backstories to the band members, A.C., Beebob, Stretch, and Red.
In peak California Raisin Popularity, there was also a 13-episode Saturday Morning Cartoon titled, “The California Raisin Show.” They also had a fan club and a variety of merchandise. There was even a video game that was on the verge of being released in 1990 titled, “The California Raisins: The Great Escape.”
Unfortunately, the end of the ’80s also marked the end of the California Raisin craze. Marketing the raisins began to cost a lot more than what they were making selling raisins, so just as quickly as they rose to fame, the raisin fad shriveled.
In 2015, rumors surfaced that the California Raisins could be making their way back into Hollywood, but that plan failed to ripen.
While the raisins may have been discarded like the least appetizing item in your trail mix, some point out that they likely inspired future animated characters, like the modern M&Ms. And for those who grew up in California in the ’80s, the raisins are as synonymous with childhood as a Bart Simpson t-shirt or a car commercial featuring Cal Worthington.