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.”
Spending a month on character design and animation, Vinton and his team rolled out the finished spot in September 1986, and it didn’t take long for the work to take hold of the public imagination.
Soon celebrities were eager to get involved, including the biggest star of them all: Michael Jackson. In 1989, the King of Pop reached out directly to Vinton—the two had partnered on Jackson’s 1988 Moonwalker video project and his Captain EO ride at Disney’s Epcot theme park—to propose the idea of a California Raisins partnership.
Jackson was heavily involved with the resulting spot, weighing in on every detail of his raisin incarnation’s appearance and choreographing each of its moves.
The California Raisins were an omnichannel hit long before the term even existed. They cranked out four musical albums, TV specials, a Saturday morning cartoon and a limitless supply of merchandise extensions. They even starred in a Nintendo video game that was, sadly, canceled in 1990 due to the campaign’s dwindling popularity.
While the marketing behemoth of The California Raisins imploded under its own weight, there’s no question that the campaign’s legacy has endured. Personality-rich animated foods are a staple of marketing now (think of the red and yellow M&Ms, which Will Vinton Studios helped create in 1995), and the California Raisins themselves are still the face of their namesake product, having been revived in recent years by the California Raisin Marketing Board. The raisins even made a cameo in Radio Shack’s 2014 “The ’80s Called” Super Bowl ad.
Vinton certainly wasn’t a one-hit wonder. His “Noid” character for Domino’s was another 1980s TV mainstay.
But like his storied ad campaigns, Vinton’s successful ride eventually ran out of gas.
In the 1990s, as Pixar released Toy Story and ushered in a new era of animated content, Will Vinton Studios worked hard to keep growing with ambitious projects like the Eddie Murphy-created animated series The PJs on Fox. But such growth proved difficult to sustain, and Nike co-founder Phil Knight was brought in as an investor. As financial woes mounted, the company’s reliance on Knight grew, until he owned a majority stake.
In 2003, Vinton was fired from his own company, and Knight’s son, failed rapper turned animator Travis Knight, soon became CEO.
Will Vinton Studios was rebranded as Laika, which has since produced critically praised movies like Coraline and Kubo and the Two Strings (directed by CEO Travis Knight). The advertising side of its business was spun off in 2014 and rebranded HouseSpecial.
“Will Vinton was a visionary storyteller and pioneer in the art of Claymation,” HouseSpecial wrote in a company statement sent to Adweek. “Will was instrumental in founding Portland’s thriving animation community and as his legacy grew, he was beloved around the globe. We are deeply saddened by the loss of a true legend in animation and cinema. He will be missed.”
While Vinton’s later years were often difficult and disappointing ones for him professionally, he leaves behind a strong legacy of advertising innovation, unforgettable characters and joyous craftsmanship.