The 1980’s TV commercials for California raisins have been called some of the best ads ever made. The claymation raisins singing and dancing to Marvin Gaye’s “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” became a kids TV show, recorded an album that went platinum, launched a range of toys and costumes, and starred in an Emmy-winning Christmas special. But were they a success for the raisin industry? Or did the dancing California raisins cause more trouble than they were worth?
Produced by Sarah Wyman, with Charlie Herman and Julia Press.
Note: This transcript may contain errors.
CHARLIE HERMAN: On September 14, 1986, California’s hottest new band made its debut.
It wasn’t at The Fillmore in San Francisco or the Troubadour in LA. And the band wasn’t playing heavy metal or rock ‘n’ roll.
Instead, it was a group of tiny, claymation raisins playing a Motown hit in a national ad campaign. They were the California Raisins.
RAISINS: Oooh I heard it through the grapevine, raised in the California sunshine. California raisins from the California vineyards. Don’t you know that I heard it through the grapevine.
CH: This commercial was the most popular TV ad in 1987 and 1988. And a lot people, including many of our listeners, still remember it really well.
SPEAKER ONE: It was like a Mr. Potato head, but a raisin. Like the whole body was just a head, with arms and legs waving about. And some of them played instruments, maybe?
SPEAKER TWO: All dancing in the real world, but in their little clay situation.
SPEAKER THREE: They were disproportionately raisinly huge. And their arms were like small, and they had like little legs.
CH: The dancing raisins were so popular, they took on a life of their own outside of the ad.
SPEAKER FOUR: I even had little figurines…
SPEAKER FIVE: I remember seeing them in my toy chest…
SPEAKER ONE: They were part of some happy meal kind of thing…
CH: The dancing raisins were invited to light the National Christmas Tree at the White House. They recorded an album that went gold within weeks of its release.
SPEAKER SIX: They were an incredible Motown band.
SPEAKER ONE: I thought they were a real band, and really did not connect them to like raisins, or like the idea of dried grapes until well into my adulthood.
CH: A warship, the USS Pyro, even asked permission to sail with a California Dancing Raisins flag flying high above… ahoy mateys!
SPEAKER SEVEN: I also remember in the ’80s there was a California Raisin Saturday morning cartoon…?
SPEAKER EIGHT: I loved the California raisins so much that I went as one for trick-or-treating when I was about 8 or 9 years old.
CH: But while the ad made the dancing California raisins cool… did it do anything for actual California raisins?
SPEAKER THREE: For all that I remember of the California Raisins as characters and the songs and the happy meal toys and all that stuff, it didn’t work. I didn’t eat raisins. I don’t like raisins.
CH: From Business Insider. This is Brought to you by… Brands you know, stories you don’t. I’m Charlie Herman.
The California Dancing Raisins ad has been called one of the best of all time. Paul McCartney requested his own copy on VHS. Michael Jackson asked to be featured in a sequel.
But in 1994, the raisin industry abruptly pulled the plug on the ad and its spinoffs, and still debates whether or not it was successful.
Today, the story of the California Dancing Raisins. The community that created them, and the questions they left in their wake.
Stay with us.
CH: A raisin by any other name would be… a dried grape. I mean, really, most of us don’t give raisins a whole lot of attention..they are just kind of everywhere: in our cereals, bagels, and, of course, kid’s lunch boxes. They’re just a staple. But that little piece of fruit is anything but dry and boring. And that is something producer that producer Sarah Wyman has made very clear to me since she began digging into the orgins of the California dancing raisins ad. Hey Sarah.
SARAH WYMAN: Charlie, I have to start with a confession.
CH: What is that?
SW: I, before I started working on this story, did not even eat raisins. And now they are all I can think about!! (laughs)
CH: So where did this journey for you begin?
SW: So a couple of months ago, I read this New York Times article that sort of started it all for me. It turns out the raisin industry is actually a very contentious industry… there’s this long history of lawsuits going back and forth between different members. And then on top of that, this article also made mention of a raisin mafia, along with allegations of death threats!?
SW: Yeah, that did not go over well within the industry. But actually to me, one of the most interesting parts of that story was this little section on the California Dancing Raisins ads from the ’80s.
CH: I remember those really well. I grew up in California, and it felt like they were… everywhere.
SW: I was not even alive when most of those ads aired, and I had the same experience. Like, growing up, we had this little figurine in our doll house, and my parents dressed up as them one year for Halloween.
CH: Wow, they were big fans.
SW: Yeah, I’m still looking for the pictures. But anyway, there’s this one line in the story that implies that even though the ad went on to be super successful, even though you and I still remember it all these years later, it may have precipitated some really huge divisions within the raisin industry.
CH: So what did happen?
SW: That is exactly what I wanted to find out. How could this ad that on its surface seems like an unmitigated success also have caused all these other problems?
So, to find out, I went… to Fresno.
Fresno is a dusty, medium-sized city in the middle of California’s central valley. And, I didn’t know this, but nearly 100 percent of the raisins the U.S. produces come from within a 60 mile radius of the city. And the US, by the way, is the second largest raisin producer in the entire world. So Fresno is like Eden for raisins.
MATTHEW MALCOLM: I mean you can’t just leave any field barren here, because something’s gonna grow. (laughs) That’s just the way it is.
SW: Matthew Malcolm was one of the first raisin industry members to return my calls. He’s a reporter covering raisins and grapes for one of the trade magazines his family publishes. And he made it very clear to me right off the bat that no one, him included, would be interested in talking about the New York Times story I’d read. But he told me something else too, something he says a lot of reporters like me—who fly into Fresno from the big city to cover the drama—often miss:
MM: We’re all families here and so, everybody’s really close, everybody knows each other, I mean, a lot of them are related to each other, they marry in, and so they’re very tight…
SW: And that big family, with lots of opinions, is where some of that drama comes from. Matthew has observed his fair share of contentious industry meetings. And on top of everything else, he says there’s one subject of conversation that just won’t drop.
MM: At every industry meeting I go to, it seems like someone’s asking, some raisin grower’s asking ‘are you ever going to bring the raisin, dancing raisins back?’ And the answer is usually… ‘we don’t know.. but probably not.’ They all want to have them back [sigh] I don’t know if it’s just because they love the dancing raisins, or I think more than that, is they just want a powerful campaign, you know, backing up California raisins. And that takes unity.
SW: Unity has been a longstanding challenge for the raisin industry. Still one thing nearly everyone does agree on is the mass appeal of the dancing raisins. Almost across the board, everyone I spoke to had good things to say about the ad itself.
But back in 1994, almost ten years after the first dancing raisins ad aired, that good feeling was nowhere to be found. The dancing raisins got caught in the crossfire of a heated debate within the industry. And ultimately, when everyone failed to agree, the raisins took the fall.
To make sense of that story—to understand where the dancing raisins came from, and how they disappeared—everyone told me I needed to talk to… this guy.
KALEM BARSERIAN: I’ve been born, raised here. Lived here my whole life.
SW: Kalem Barserian has worked in the raisin industry for more than 50 years.
KB: Grape and raisin grower. CEO of the wine bargaining association for five years. CEO of..
SW: His dad started farming and processing raisins in Fresno back in the 1920s, and since then, Kalem has bounced around pretty much every corner of the industry.
KB: Raisin processor for many years in different facilities.
SW: He just turned 82, and for the last few decades, he’s been privy to almost every dispute in raisin land, and lots of them have landed on his desk. He’s now on his second round of leading the Raisin Bargaining Association. And I told him, all of this sounds absolutely exhausting:
KB: I’m still here! It keeps you in shape.
SW: The California raisin industry is complicated. First of all, you’ve got that family dynamic.
KB: Heard it through the grapevine! If I tell everybody some fictitious story about you know, Chicken Little, right now to you, they might know it in Madera by 2 o’clock.
SW: Then, you’ve got nature to think about. Raisin farmers rely on good weather and conditions to grow their product. And, for better or worse, they’re also in it together on that front.
KB: Vine doesn’t know who it belongs to. It just knows that it needs water, it needs to be pruned, needs to be fertilized, it needs to be babied. I treat my vines as if they were my children.
SW: That’s another thing that makes the raisin industry different. While the vines may feel special to their growers—like children!—to you and me? Not so much. Raisins are not like cell phone brands, with unique features and better WiFi connectivity and a sleeker feel than their competitors. Most of the time when we buy raisins, we have no idea where they came from.
KB: Because a raisin is a raisin is a raisin. 16:20 How do you distinguish your raisin bagel from my field to your field? You don’t, right?
SW: All of those different factors combined add up to the final, and most important challenge for the raisin industry. In order to be successful, this big “family” has to work together. So, there’s an alphabet soup of different boards and agencies and committees to help make that happen. They have two big jobs. First, they provide tools the industry can use to regulate the raisin market. They help out with keeping prices stable and have an eye on supply and demand. And then, job number two: they work on public relations and marketing… for the entire raisin industry.
Of all the acronyms, there’s just one you need to remember: CALRAB. The California Raisin Advisory Board. It would go on to produce the Dancing Raisins ad. But before that, in the 70s and early 80s, it was busy churning out other commercials…
AD ONE: Lay some happiness on me, give me raisins and I’ll be…
AD TWO: We know raisins are natural, but kids just know what they like. So, give them raisins! And call them nature’s candy.
AD THREE: Raisins from California. Nature’s candy.
SW: CALRAB came up with and promoted new recipes that used raisins, it went to bakery conventions, it pitched raisin stories to food magazines and newspapers. And it paid for all that buzz with an assessment—or a tax—on the raisin industry. It taxed both growers and packers.
The growers are the ones with the vines. They grow grapes in the beautiful California sunshine and turn them into raisins.
KB: Whereas the packer is the middleman buying it from him, processing it, selling it, shipping it into trade and hoping to make a profit.
[sound of packing facility]
SW: This is what raisin packing sounds like. Packers sort the raisins by size, rinse out sand and dirt, control for quality, and pack them all up in boxes.
[SOUND OF RAISIN BOXING]
In 1985, both halves of the industry were funding CALRAB. So, growers and packers paid a tax on every ton of raisins they produced. And the industry was coming out of a big slump at the time. A series of weather-related disasters during the ’70s had thrown the price of raisins completely out of whack. Demand was down. And if the California raisin family wanted to avert economic disaster, it needed to band together and find a way to sell more raisins.
So, CALRAB proposed this big advertising campaign, with national TV commercials. It had about five million dollars to spend, which, in ad money, is… not a lot.
SETH WERNER: It wasn’t back then, and it still isn’t now.
SW: This is Seth Werner. In 1985, he was a copywriter at the ad agency Foote, Cone, and Belding.
WERNER: My job, I called it jack of all trade…
SW: His boss had him working mostly on trade ads—stuff for industry publications… not the kind of campaigns you or I would ever see in a commercial or on a billboard.
WERNER: So I just went to him one day and said ‘can I have something of my own to work on? Can you just give me an assignment? I don’t care how small or whatever, but something that’s not part of what you’re doing.’
SW: Seth’s boss handed him the California raisins account. The brief—the goal of the campaign—was to come up with a commercial that would make customers see raisins… differently.
WERNER: Our whole objective was to make them cool. And most of the people spending millions of dollars don’t want to know there are two guys sitting in a back room trying to make each other laugh and come up with this stuff, but that is what we did.
SW: Seth remembers going to a friend’s apartment the night he got the account. He wasn’t worried about making the most of this one shot and impressing his boss. He just wanted to make an ad he thought was cool. So when his friends were like…
WERNER: ‘What are you gonna do with that? How are you gonna do something with California Raisins,’ I said ‘ahhh, I’ll probably do something stupid like have some raisins dancing to I heard it through the Grapevine…’ and then I thought… ‘oh, maybe that’s not so stupid!’
CH: After the break, five million dollars DOES go a long way, the Dancing California Raisins conga line their way to record deals and awards, and they split the raisin industry right down the middle.
SPEAKER THREE: The one song I remember them doing all the time was “I Heard it Through the Grapevine…” To the point where I was a kid and I hadn’t, I don’t think it really clicked to me that that was like a real song. And then I remember hearing like the Marvin Gaye version of that, and I was like ‘why is he doing a California Raisins song?’ And then it clicked on me that it was like, ‘oh, this is a real song, like… not a California Raisins song.’
CH: We’re back. Seth Werner, the young copywriter newly in charge of the California Raisins account, had a concept. Raisins, dressed up in white gloves and sunglasses, dancing to Marvin Gaye’s “I heard it through the grapevine.” But first, he had to get approval… from the raisin growers and packers who were paying for it. Here’s Sarah again:
SW: One morning in 1986, Seth and the team at Foote, Cone, and Belding piled into a car and headed to Fresno.
WERNER: We went there because we had to meet the growers, and so we would drive, what was it, an hour, 90 minutes to Fresno from San Francisco, and the account people were all nervous on the way there like ‘what are we going to do?’
SW: They pulled up to a business park, hopped out of the car, and marched into a conference room. Kalem Barserian, along with around 40 raisin growers, packers, and industry members, was in that room. They all watched as Seth walked in and took the floor.
KB: I’ll never forget, he was a handsome guy, had white shoes on, no socks, had an earring in this ear, he had the ghetto blaster up on his shoulders, and he turns it on and it’s “Heard It Through the Grapevine.”
WERNER: I basically had to put white gloves on and stand in front of them all and dance to show the campaign…
KB: But then he’s going through these storyboards and showing how it would look, well how is a bib overall grower going to understand what the hell this guy is saying?
SW: Remember, these were Fresno guys, not big city ad men. And Seth… Seth was dancing all by himself in front of the group, without socks on!
WERNER: Uh yeah, it was probably a little bit of a shock, I guess.
SW: Clyde E. Nef, who was CALRAB’s manager at the time, wrote about Seth’s performance and the board’s reaction in his book, The Fruits of Their Labors. He writes:
“The thirty seconds of this commercial seemed like an eternity. Deathly silence filled the Board room for what was probably only another thirty seconds, but seemed much longer. A board member said, ‘Seth, can you do it again?’ The tape was rewound and the presentation repeated.”
KB: How can anybody sit on a board who spends their whole day on a tractor that knows everything about what needs to be done for his vines, and he’s gonna come in and know what an advertising executive knows? Hell no!
SW: Kalem says the vote on whether or not to approve the ad was extremely close. Almost all the growers in the room were against it. And they had good reasons to be! Claymation was an unproven concept—this was probably the first time it had been used in a commercial. The ad was fun, but, to quote The Fruits of Their Labors again, it “made no effort to sell raisins. It was merely entertaining.” Just to make the ad would cost $300,000. If no one liked it, the raisin industry could not get that money back.
But despite it all, by a very narrow margin, more than half the room voted to greenlight the ad. The Dancing California Raisins were a go. Now, somebody just had to turn Seth Werner’s concept into a real commercial.
MICHAEL BRUNSFELD: The first step in this was we need somebody to create some raisins that are going to dance around.
SW: Michael Brunsfeld was the commercial animation director at a company called Colossal Pictures, which had been contracted to do a mockup of the ad. Colossal issued a challenge to some of its animators:
BRUNSFELD: How can you make a raisin look appealing? You know, what kind of legs does he have so he could do a dance appropriately, does he have oversized shoes, you know, what do they look like?
SW: The winning concept was a raisin with big eyes, a defined nose, and a wide mouth—perfect for lip syncing. The face took up most of the raisin’s body…
MB: And then there was little wrinkles here and there, but the more you emphasize that, the more it looked, you know, kind of like a weird prune. (laughs)
WERNER: It did not look cool.
SW: Again, Seth Werner, sockless ad copywriter.
WERNER: We want sunglasses on them, I want to put them in Converse sneakers, but untie the laces, and… they gotta look hip, basically.
SW: The ad agency hired a guy named Will Vinton and his team to take the animated mockup of the ad and turn it into clay animation—or, claymation.
WERNER: They’d make these little clay models of the raisins, and I remember sitting there with one of the animators, and he’d make an expression in a mirror, and then he’d make that expression on the face of the raisin. They used themselves to make them human.
SW: This process, as you can imagine, took a while. Vinton and his team spent weeks making about six different figurines and a set made out of clay.
WERNER: A frame was one snapshot. So they’d pose them, they’d take a picture of that, then they’d re-pose them slightly in a slightly different pose, take a picture of that. 30 of those and you have a second of the commercial.
SW: It was a thirty second commercial.
WERNER: We created this huge conga line that came out of a box of raisins and danced on the coffee table while this husband and wife or boyfriend and girlfriend were watching a movie, and they were unaware that all this was happening in its own little world. On the table below them.
[SOUND OF AD]
SW: And then at the end the announcer says:
AD: Sounds grape, doesn’t it?
WERNER: I remember when I went to college, people would say ‘there are three or four ways you can do an advertisement. You can have a talking head, you can have a situation…’ you know, there were like formulas on how to do this. And this broke the mold. This was not a formula.
SW: The ad was a hit. Today, it would go viral. But back in 1986, going viral was not yet a thing. If you saw a commercial you liked, you couldn’t look it up on YouTube and send a link to a friend. Unless you just happened to have a VCR set up and recording at the exact moment the ad aired…
WERNER: You had to wait and hopefully see it on TV again on some show you were watching and not know when that was coming, and because we didn’t have a very big media budget, it wasn’t on that often. So you really had to be in the right place at the right time just to see it, and then when you saw it, you weren’t quite sure what that was, but it was different than everything else you saw, and people started just saying ‘what was that?’
SW: Those people started calling CALRAB and the ad agency, asking when and where the ad would play again. Seth and his colleagues were getting fan mail forwarded to them—from viewers, TV stations, and other advertising execs.
WERNER: ‘Dear NBC, After weeks of trying to find out who to congratulate on a recent national ad, I came up with nothing.’
‘Today during Ryan’s Hope I saw the cutest commercial. I believe it might have been a public service announcement…’
‘Dear Judy: Generally when you hear from me, a problem is involved. Not this time, however! The “Heard It Through the Grapevine” theme is fabulous. This commercial has wit—imagination—and it was good enough that I went and bought a box of Californian grown raisins.’
SW: Seth has a whole scrapbook of these letters. They go on for pages and pages, carefully typed out on letterhead and hand-written in beautiful cursive. But there’s one letter that really stands out:
WERNER: Okay, this is from the Fitzgerald-Hartley Company. November 12, 1986…
SW: You guys, it’s from Paul McCartney’s manager.
WERNER: ‘Our thanks again on behalf of Paul McCartney. If there’s anything we can do for you, please give me a call…’
SW: Paul. McCartney. He wrote to Foot Cone and Belding specifically requesting a VHS copy of the ad so he could watch it whenever he wanted to.
WERNER: Yes. (laughs)
SW: I mean, how did you react when you found out about that??
WERNER: Well, you know, we were at this point, we were like what else is new. You know? (laughs) These little guys took over everybody’s hearts and minds, so it didn’t surprise us at the time.
SW: Did it feel cool though?
WERNER: We still thought it was cool. Yeah. Definitely [both laugh]
SW: The raisin industry quickly followed up with more ads. The California Raisins dancing on a construction worker’s sandwich….
AD FOUR: Sounds better than what I got…
SW: On a kitchen counter…
AD FIVE: Honey, are you playing with your food again?
SW: Before long, a claymation Ray Charles joined the bunch…
AD SIX: Oh, I heard it through the grapevine!
SW: The raisins dance around on the lid of his grand piano while he belts out the band’s catchphrase:
AD SIX: Oh I heard it through the grapevine! Oh, that’s sweet.
SW: One of the people who saw that ad was Michael Jackson. He was so into it that he personally got in touch with Will Vinton, the claymation animator, and asked to be included in his own commercial.
AD SEVEN: I heard it through the grapevine! Raised in the California sunshine…
WERNER: He volunteered and said ‘I won’t be paid, I just want to be a raisin, I have one thing I need to ask though, I will not talk to anybody from the advertising agency, and I will not talk to any clients. I will only talk to you, Will.’
SW: Michael Jackson sent Will Vinton a video with instructions for how he wanted the claymation to look—down to the motions and facial expressions the backup raisins were making in the background of the ad. And apparently, making a clay “King of Pop” was a whole ‘nother can of worms. Will Vinton told Seth the hardest part was getting his nose right. He said:
WERNER: He would not approve the nose that I put on the raisin, no matter what I did, he wouldn’t approve of it! And so Will said ‘well finally I took Janet’s nose and put that on the raisin and he bought it [snaps fingers] like that.’
SW: Back in Fresno, the raisin growers and packers watched with amazement as the Dancing Raisins turned into… superstars. And since they were already touring the country, at least on TV screens, there was only one logical next step.
ROSS VANNELLI: Well how about doing an album?
SW: Ross Vannelli is a music producer. He’s written songs for bands like Earth, Wind and Fire, the Gap Band, and more recently, he’s done covers with Kanye West. Back in 1987, the president of Priority Records got in touch with Ross, and he asked him to produce an album of Motown hits, sung by the California Raisins.
RV: I said, ‘I think that’s a great idea.’ I said, ‘the only thing I would do, because at that time, you know, you had things like the Chipmunks and all these different things for kids,’
SW: That’s Alvin and the Chipmunks, for those of you aren’t fans.
RV: I said, ‘I’m going to do it where it feels authentic.’ And this is what I told him. And so he says, ‘Ok fine. We’ll do that.’
SW: Buddy Miles, who’d been the drummer for Band of Gypsies with Jimi Hendrix, flew to California to record the vocals in Ross’s studio.
RV: And I set it up in the studio exactly how like an old Motown session would be. With the musicians all in a room, live, everything. I mean, we didn’t do anything short of that.
SW: Within a month of its release, the album went gold. It had sold more than 500,000 copies.
RV: I think within 4-5 months it was platinum! And then they called me and they said, ‘you know what it’s platinum in Canada too!’ I says, ‘in Canada? Really?’
SW: Did it feel at any point while you were working on this album like you were making an ad for raisins?
RV: Oh no, to me it at one point… it kind of went beyond that.
BARRY KRIEBEL: Well that’s the problem with the advertising! It lost message. And it became more entertainment than strategy.
SW: Barry Kriebel became President of Sunmaid Raisins in February of 1986, one year before Ross Vannelli produced his album, and right as the California Raisins were in liftoff. He watched the original commercial spin off into more and more distant territory. There were California Raisins lunchboxes, then Hardee’s started handing out plastic Raisins figurines with Cinnamon ‘n’ Raisin biscuits.
HARDEES AD: Announcing the big plush bendable California Raisins at Hardees…
SW: There were California Raisins Halloween costumes—they were bestsellers in 1988.
BK: It actually got to the point where the Dancing Raisins had their own television show. I mean, you can imagine that!
RAISINS SHOW: You might have heard about us through the old grapevine. Oh! Oh! Oh! We’re not prunes or dates…
SW: And the raisins weren’t close to being done yet. They starred in two claymation TV shorts, and a Christmas special that won an Emmy!
RAISINS CHRISTMAS: Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer… It’s those sensational California Raisins in the Emmy-winning Claymation Christmas celebration, next! And if you ever saw him….
SW: But even as the dancing raisins scored these victories, back in Fresno, things were heating up. Little disagreements surfaced. Like, who was allowed to borrow the actual dancing raisins costume CALRAB had? What about Michael Jackson and what he was contributing? Like, when Ray Charles had starred in his ad, he agreed to do a cross-country public relations tour, promoting the health and goodness of California raisins. But Michael Jackson, well he was not about that.
BK: No, what we got was him for free, but he wasn’t gonna do anything. He wasn’t gonna eat a raisin, he wasn’t gonna attend an event, he wasn’t gonna do… I said, ‘Ok, that’s one piece of the marketing puzzle. Just one piece! What’s the whole campaign? What’s the message? How is that better than Ray Charles?’
SW: Between 1986 and 1992, the Dancing Raisins raked in more than 7 million dollars in licensing fees. But as that money flowed back into CALRAB’s coffers, the disagreements became more serious. The success of the dancing raisins exposed fractures in the industry which had been forming just under the surface for decades. And as that rift widened, the raisins fell right through it.
CH: That’s after the break.
SPEAKER FOUR: I loved those commercials as a kid, they were so cool.
SPEAKER EIGHT: And I guess subliminally, it probably worked because I do remember eating raisins as a snack…
SPEAKER FIVE: They just made raisins and dried fruit in general seem really, really hip.
SPEAKER NINE: Definitely didn’t make me any more of a fan of raisins.
SPEAKER ONE: Like obviously, they’re raisins, but it just didn’t occur to me that like this was a tool to get you to eat like what you see in boxes of raisins.
CH: We’re back. Seth Werner and CALRAB—the agency responsible for hyping up California raisins—they had delivered a hit. Those California Raisins weren’t just in California anymore. They were all over the country, on mugs and lunchboxes and tee shirts. But, that’s not where this story ends. Sarah tells us what happened next…
SW: In 1994, a group of raisin packers voted to shut down CALRAB. And, when it went down, so did the Dancing California Raisins. The band broke up.
The raisin packers didn’t reach this decision because anyone had anything against the ad, or because licensing fees had stopped rolling in, or even because raisin sales were down. In fact, the industry was on an upswing. But that wasn’t the story around town. Some people were saying they weren’t getting a big enough slice of the Dancing Raisins pie.
You know how families can be about money. And the California raisin industry is, after all, a big family. So, just like at Thanksgiving dinner, while CALRAB tried to calm everyone down and broker peace from the head of the table, squabbling raisin packers aired old grudges and argued about who was and was not getting their fair share of the cash. And by the end of the night, all anyone could agree on was that one of the siblings was getting a bigger cut than everyone else. Sunmaid had always been the golden child, and now, they were making off with the family fortune.
BK: There’s always been a… ‘If it’s good for Sunmaid, it’s gotta be bad for them.’ Or ‘if it’s bad for Sunmaid, it’s gotta be good for them.’
SW: Barry Kriebel was president of Sunmaid at the time. And even in the 1990s, Sunmaid was like the “Kleenex” of the raisin industry. You asked someone to name a raisin brand, and they would say “Sunmaid.”
There were some other big names, like Dole and Del Monte, but they didn’t just sell raisins. And because they were big companies, not headquartered in the Fresno circle, they were not at the table, and participating in all of this back-and-forth.
And that might be part of why some raisin packers felt like this all boiled down to: “it’s us versus Sunmaid.”
BK: So the bottom line was you didn’t have industry consensus.
SW: Let me explain. Almost all the packers resented Sunmaid, but not all for the same reasons. Some had small brands that competed with Sunmaid. And because Sunmaid was so much bigger—the Kleenex of raisins!—they suspected that brand was getting a bigger share of the sales that had trickled down from the ad. But an even bigger faction of raisin packers did not have their own name-brands. They sold most of their raisins in bulk, to ingredient customers, like cereal brands or bakeries. And they were hearing from those ingredient customers that they had an issue with the ads:
BK: Some large customers felt they were paying for it.
SW: Big ingredient customers could actually look up in state records how much money, per ton, raisin packers were paying CALRAB. You do the math on how many tons of raisins you’re buying from them, and bam, you can see exactly how much of the total cost is going towards California raisin ads.
BK: If you’re one of the largest ingredient buyers for bread or cereal or something, then really you’re paying for it, right? It’s a tax.
SW: And that tax is paying for a campaign that’s not even advertising your product! Barry says the CALRAB board tried brainstorming ways to include other raisin products, like trail mix or raisin bagels, in the commercials…
BK: And then we’d have arguments about whether, you know, you could ever have somebody eat a raisin, I mean now that you’ve personified them… I mean…
SW: For the packers who did have their own brands and worried Sunmaid was running away with raisin sales, there was another issue. CALRAB and the commercials it paid for represented the entire industry. Which meant packers couldn’t slap a Dancing Raisin on their packaging or use the characters in ads unless they got their idea approved by the board. Lots of brands tested the limits of this rule, including Sunmaid:
BK: I got permission from the manager to create a claymation ad where I had the Dancing Raisins singing to the Sunmaid girl.
SUNMAID AD: My girl… talkin’ bout my girl. Sunmaid. America’s favorite raisin. My girl!
BK: Yeeeeah the marketing guys at Del Monte filed a complaint with the Department of Food and Agriculture over it.
SW: In the end, the ad went to air. But of course, that was not really the end of it. Because the smaller packers still thought Sunmaid had an unfair advantage.
KB: Once we started the Dancing Raisins, people were going to the store asking for Dancing Raisin raisins, and there weren’t any!
SW: Kalem Barserian, raisin industry veteran, again.
KB: Couldn’t find it! They weren’t in the shelf. Okay?
SW: But you know who was on that shelf? Sunmaid. Unlike the smaller brands in the industry, it could afford to pay for that space. And since there wasn’t a “Dancing Raisin” brand in the store, small packers worried Sunmaid was getting all the business.
KB: We’re not getting our fair share of it. You’re making us put up $32.50 for generic advertising, and Sunmaid’s getting the benefit of it. Which wasn’t true. It wasn’t true. But there was enough leadership to sway the ones that weren’t smart enough to realize what a good program it was.
SW: When the Dancing Raisins ad stopped airing, Sunmaid’s share of direct raisin sales—like in boxes on grocery store shelves—actually increased. That could mean that while the ad was running, more customers were buying store-brand raisins instead of Sunmaid raisins and store brand raisins were supplied by those other California raisin packers. But Barry Kriebel says, at that point, the actual facts had stopped mattering. Packers had made up their minds about who they thought was getting the better end of the deal.
BK: You gotta have consensus. Right or wrong, It depends on wherever the votes are. And if you don’t have a consensus, it doesn’t matter.
SW: But by 1994, the packers had reached a consensus. They were tired of paying into a shared piggybank for the greater good. Or, as they saw it, for Sunmaid’s good.
KB: And the packers got pissed at Barry and killed the program. They filed a petition, and that’s it! You’re over. Check mate. Done. That’s what happened. I was in the room when it got killed! There was 19 of us at Sunnyside country club sitting in a circle in the main dining room, and we all voted. I voted to kill it too.
SW: Kalem was voting on behalf of the packer he worked for. He says if it had just been up to him, he would not have ended CALRAB… and therefore the Dancing Raisins.
KB: And at this point, even though I had to vote to kill it, I side on the other side, where I helped put that program together, and was successful for ten years. And then we threw the baby out with the bathwater. It’s that simple.
SW: Even now, decades later when the dust has settled, one thing is still a question. Was the Dancing Raisins ad a success? From a pop culture standpoint, absolutely—people all over the world have heard of the Dancing Raisins. But in terms of its impact on the industry… it depends on who you ask. Kalem Barserian will tell you the ad made the raisin industry money, and he will pull out a calculator to prove it.
KB: [counts] 350 versus 244. You got 100,000 tons. I don’t need to prove anything to anybody. Hey. There it is. Got 100,000 tons, more sales than you would have if you didn’t do this.
SW: But, on the other side of the debate, if you ask Barry Kriebel, he’ll tell you it is much more complicated than that.
BK: Well, the simplest way to answer that is, ‘how do you define success?’ Right? Is it that people remember it? It’s very successful in that sense. Did it, uh, did it drive up the price of raisins? No, not really. Because that’s a whole market supply and demand on both the national and international basis.
SW: Almost as soon as it disbanded CALRAB, the raisin industry got to work developing another agency to take its place. And in 1998—wait for it, another acronym—the CRMB…California Raisin Marketing Board…took over as the new hype machine for California Raisins.
Harry Overly became the new president of Sunmaid in 2017. And he says, even though the Dancing Raisins are long gone, he and the rest of the industry are still dealing with the fallout.
HARRY OVERLY: I know for a fact that there is animosity that still exists within the industry of what happened back then. But I also take the approach of, that was 30 years ago so I think it’s time that we look forward because the industry is in a very dramatic, very drastically different place than it was back then.
SW: But in some ways, it may be in the same place as it was in the ’80s. It’s hurting from some bad weather trends. It’s being threatened by growing raisin production in other countries. These days, some growers are abandoning ship entirely, ripping out their vineyards and planting almonds instead. And on top of that, there have been many, many more lawsuits.
There is also some good news though! Earlier this year, the CRMB—which did not respond to my request for comment—hired a brand new Vice President of Marketing. The industry is in talks about a new campaign to promote California raisins.
SW: So are the California Raisins coming back, do you think—the Dancing California Raisins?
HO: Well there’s there’s definitely 12:02 some discussion about that I mean in its infancy right now.
SW: Lots of details would have to be worked out first. How would the assessment be collected? Would everyone contribute to the cost of an ad campaign? Logistics aside, there is a hint of the dancing raisins magic in the air again. Almost like you can hear the band warming up “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” in the distance. Everyone is hungering for unity again, they just have to find something to unify around.
SW: So there’s hope!
HO: Oh, there’s definitely hope. Yeah the good news is the industry is at a point where people are working together more than they have historically, at least in the past 20 years or so.
MM: Obviously raisin growers and packers, they compete with each other.
SW: This is Matthew Malcolm again. Remember, he reports on the raisin industry.
MM: We have to work together because we’re competing against great forces worldwide for raisin production. And maybe some people are pessimistic about it, I don’t know, maybe people are tired of just the lack of unity. But I think we’re heading in a positive direction now.
SW: Matthew says, whether or not the dancing raisins are part of the industry’s future, he remains optimistic. He has faith in the industry’s ability to work this out. Because, in Fresno, California Raisins has always meant something bigger than a couple of claymation figurines singing “I Heard It Through the Grapevine.”
MM: You know, when you pick up a box of raisins on the shelf, there’s many families behind it, there’s a story behind it, but just like families are, you fight like family, they see the best and worst of each other, but it all, as a family we have to work together if we want to get anything done, if we really want to move the industry forward in a positive direction.
CH: This episode was reported and produced by Sarah Wyman, with Julia Press and me, Charlie Herman.
Thanks to everyone who left us voicemails and shared their memories of the California Raisins in our Facebook group. So many of you remembered that Christmas special…
SPEAKER TEN: We had the Christmas special on videotape, we probably watched it like three or four times a December, between when I was like 4 and 8.
SPEAKER ELEVEN: We watched it in art class when I was in elementary school.
SPEAKER TWELVE: And it was all claymation, and they’d sing Christmas carols and stuff… there were I think other characters and things in it as well.
SPEAKER THREE: They sang we three kings with also these camels that were all claymation.
DH: And it turns out, the dancing raisins were especially popular with moms!
SPEAKER FOUR: My mother thought they were great, and she collected the figurines. She would always show them to me and talk to me about them and how cute and clever they were, and I just thought, why in the world is a grown woman so excited about something so ridiculous?
SPEAKER FIVE: Every time that commercial would come on, my mom would sing and dance to that song. We were so embarrassed.
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Bill Moss is our sound engineer. Music is from Audio Network. Casey Holford and John DeLore composed our theme. Our editor is Micaela Blei. Sarah Wyman is our showrunner.
Brought to you by is a production of Insider Audio.
MICHAEL JACKSON: And Will, keep these guys still until they do the heard it! Heard it, heard it! And they should pretty much be still once they do their heard it! Heard it! Like that. Very serious-like.