It’s rare enough for an ad campaign to break into pop culture in any lasting way, but even among that elite roster, The California Raisins are in a class of their own. In the 1980s, the animated band of wrinkled and purple R&B singers were absolutely everywhere, starting in TV ads and soon branching out into musical records, holiday specials and endless merchandise.
One of the key visionaries behind their success was Will Vinton, the founder of Will Vinton Studios and the man credited with coining the term “Claymation.” Vinton died Thursday after a 12-year struggle with multiple myeloma, a cancer that targets blood plasma cells. He was 70.
Vinton, whose creations include Domino’s 1980s ad icon The Noid and the long-running animated M&M characters, was admittedly one of several creative leaders who helped bring The California Raisins into existence, but it was his studio that brought the idea to life and made it a cultural phenomenon in the ’80s and early ’90s.
Originally pitched by Foote, Cone & Belding (now FCB) creatives Seth Werner and Dexter Fedor, the campaign was an attempt to shift the consumer perception of raisins from being a less-than-cool snack to being one with style and swagger. That’s an ambitious goal, but the California Raisin Advisory Board gave it a green light.
Selling the idea was one thing. But making it work on screen was something else entirely. And that’s where Will Vinton came in.
Already an Oscar winner (along with his filmmaking partner, Bob Gardiner) for the 1974 animated short Closed Mondays, Vinton was tapped by the agency in 1986 to create a launch spot featuring The California Raisins, stylish R&B crooners who covered Marvin Gaye’s “I Heard It Through the Grapevine.”