The first California Dancing Raisins commercial debuted on television in the fall of 1986. You may recall the ad with their version of Marvin Gaye’s “I Heard It Through the Grapevine.” These anthropomorphic raisins, conceived as an R&B group in the Motown mold, were some of the first animated characters created with Claymation.
Seth Werner, the copywriter at the San Francisco agency Foote, Cone & Belding who created the concept, knew the spots were outrageously popular. He got a call from Paul McCartney’s assistant, asking for a taped copy of the ad so the Beatle could watch it on repeat. Nancy Reagan invited the raisins to the White House in 1988 for Christmas. Michael Jackson requested that he personally be raisinified by the inventor of Claymation, Will Vinton, for a raisin commercial that appeared in movie theaters. (“It was really quite a problem getting the character of the Michael Jackson raisin to be good enough for Michael to approve,” Mr. Werner said. He remembered that Mr. Vinton told him “‘Finally I put Janet’s nose on him and he loved it,’” referring to Mr. Jackson’s sister.)
Raisin sales spiked. But success bred discontent. Even as Sun-Maid benefited disproportionately from the ads as the biggest brand in town, Barry Kriebel, then the company’s president, worked to limit his competitors from profiting in the same manner. He was dead set on restricting the way that the dancing raisin was displayed on the packaging of other brands — and Sun-Maid, which now represents about 40 percent of the industry, was big enough to put the pressure on.
Barry Kriebel “and I fought like cats and dogs,” said Kalem Barserian, 81, the leader of the Raisin Bargaining Association, which represents raisin farmers as they negotiate prices with raisin processors, including Sun-Maid. (Mr. Barserian has known five different Sun-Maid chiefs — and has a long tenure as one of the most formidable men in Fresno.)
Mr. Kriebel prevailed, poisoning good feeling in the industry about the Dancing Raisins. In 1994, a majority of raisin packers petitioned to terminate the funding, halting the commercials. (Mr. Kriebel, who now works for John Vidovich, a major grower of pomegranates, pistachios, oranges and Sun-Maid raisins, declined to discuss this history.)