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California and the West

Bringing Raisins Back to the Grapevine

Advertising: Richard Simmons will help kick off the new promotion, which also includes one of the dancing raisins.

February 10, 2000|JAMES RAINEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The "California Raisins" danced off the advertising stage six years ago as a marketing phenomenon par excellence--their sassy television ads so popular that raisin character spinoffs sold almost as well as the dried fruit they promoted.

But six years after the soulful, animated characters left TV, raisin sales are lagging so badly that the campaign is coming back. Sort of.

Fitness pitchman Richard Simmons and one raisin character will kick off a new promotion today on behalf of California's 5,000 raisin growers. The mop-haired Simmons and a costumed dancing raisin will strut and kick their way through a New York City park at the front of what is being billed as the "longest grapevine line."

The choice of Simmons--who has built a career largely with television weight loss infomercials--is designed to promote the idea that raisins are a healthy snack or addition to any meal. Ever tried tortillas bolstered with raisin paste? Simmons thinks you should.

Simmons has already been interviewed on radio and by television's "Regis & Kathie Lee" about his new food fetish. The new pitch will not employ television commercials, relying on print ads and personal appearances by Simmons and his costumed raisin pal.

Simmons, 52, acknowledged he is getting $100,000 for the work, but said he wouldn't front the fruit if it weren't good for his followers, who are sometimes desperate to lose weight.

"It is an antioxidant and antimicrobial. It has so many vitamins!" Simmons sang of the raisin in a phone interview. "It's like a gem from heaven."

Besides touting raisins to consumers as a healthy and even a disease-fighting alternative to processed snack foods, the new campaign targets the food service industry and food manufacturers, boasting of the fruit's versatility as an ingredient.

The idea of raisins in a tortilla is designed to add a bit of sweetness, but more important to bring the raisins' purported germ-fighting powers to the food staple, said Kathy Moulthrop, a spokeswoman for the California Raisin Marketing Board .

Such appeals are a must for the industry, which has thousands of small farmers and has seen its gross domestic sales drop 22% from their peak in 1988-89 of 219,000 tons, Moulthrop said.

The original clay-like dancing raisins never directly touted their own benefits. Part of the raisins' popularity stemmed from their profile as entertainers rather than pitchmen, an industry official said at the time.

Several surveys found the public enjoyed the raisins' performances more than any other TV advertisement. And products licensed to use the dancing raisins' likenesses earned $500 million one year, compared with $600 million in actual raisin sales.

Simmons and the costumed raisin will make their second public appearance at Universal Studios on Feb. 19. Five hundred people will be allowed to join in a low-impact aerobic workout with the entertainer and the human-sized raisin.

Simmons promised to be outfitted in his trademark "little shorts and tank top" emblazoned with a raisin, of course. Like the raisins of old, he'll perform to "I Heard It Through the Grapevine." He insisted that he does not feel pressure following the smash act.

"I'm cuter than the raisin," Simmons said.

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