Sam McManis

Discoveries: Sun-Maid icon raisin’ eyebrows

The latest iteration of the Sun-Maid Girl, introduced in 2006, is on display at the Sun-Maid Market in Kingsburg.
The latest iteration of the Sun-Maid Girl, introduced in 2006, is on display at the Sun-Maid Market in Kingsburg.

Sex sells. That’s Advertising 101. We’re accustomed to it by now, numbingly inured. But must we subject even the Sun-Maid Girl, that wholesome San Joaquin Valley lass proffering a bounteous tray of grapes before a penumbra of brilliant sunshine, to a blatant makeover into a red-bonneted hottie?

I mean, really? Have marketers no shame? What’s next, the Pillsbury Dough Boy with six-pack abs?

As a lifelong consumer of raisins, that least sexy of fruits, I never had made an association between the comeliness of the raven-haired mascot in the virginal-white blouse and the desirability of ingesting shriveled nuggets of dried grapes.

At least, I hadn’t made that connection until I visited Sun-Maid’s corporate and factory headquarters just off Highway 99. Then, as if scales had fallen from my eyes, I truly saw how the maiden’s portrait has morphed over the decades. It’s gone from noble worker in peasant blouse with a wan smile, to apple-cheeked, girl-next-door whose eyebrows have been plucked, to 1970s ingenue with Farrah-feathered hair under that bonnet, to the latest, 2000s version in which the SMG is computer-generated, hips slimmer, bust bustier, blouse clingier, cheekbones more pronounced.

It’s difficult not to see the transformation, because the SMG’s visage is plastered all over the spacious store: on hermetically sealed packages of every raisin product imaginable; on posters and cut-out figures you can pose next to; on the Guinness-certified “World’s Largest Box of Raisins” (12 feet high, and once holding 16,500 pounds of dried grapes); and on the factory store’s 10-minute promotional video, a series of “dissolve” shots that starkly shows the SMG’s facial defoliation, self-tanning, lip-plumping, liposuction and selective augmentation.

The result? She’s kinda hot. And kind of ridiculous. Not that I’m enraged or anything, though I will cop to being disappointed about this latest objectification of women, even of the fictional mascot persuasion.

What I’m actually most chastened about is that I never paid attention to the initial surge of “controversy” back when the latest iteration was unveiled on boxes, in printed material and in a 2009 TV commercial in which the now-animated SMG goes from the baking fields of the San Joaquin Valley to the hot lights of a Hollywood red carpet and back again.

Where was I when Ad Rant blogger Jami Bernard called the SMG a “Barbie Doll in Amish attire”? Where was I when the Weekly Standard sneered, “It’s as if Julia Roberts decided to don a red bonnet and start picking grapes”? Or when Jezebel dished about “implants and a cleanse”? Or when this arrived from feminist writer BlogHer (Devra Renner): “Quite possibly the Sun-Maid Girl hasn’t changed at all on the inside, maintaining her innocence, being demure. We just can’t see it on the outside”?

Only four times in 105 years has Sun-Maid changed the look of its brand ambassador, originally based on a portrait of Lorraine Collett Petersen, who in 1915 was “discovered drying her black hair curls in the sunny backyard of her parents’ home in Fresno,” according to Sun-Maid press materials. They added the red bonnet later, a brilliant marketing ploy, and they made only subtle changes to her visage in 1923, 1956 and 1970 before the “Project-Runway”-like makeover in 2006.

But it’s not as if the SMG was ever in need of “work.” Sure, her eyebrows originally were a tad bushy, but the Frida Kahlo look was popular, and she always had sported a strong, healthy-raisin-fueled physique. At the time of the change, Sun-Maid bristled at the notion that, in the words of BlogHer, the company was “using melons to sell raisins.” SMG, it said, would promote a healthy lifestyle, “doing yoga along the beach, walking her way to lasting fitness and sharing healthy recipes and mini meals.”

Indeed, the briefest of Google image searches will show the SMG handing out water cups at an aid station of a marathon, doing the triangle yoga pose on the beach, baking (no doubt) low-fat scones in a spotless kitchen, posing for a selfie in front of the Statue of Liberty, and power-walking the sun-drenched rows of vines down on the farm.

Sorry for obsessing so about the SMG. It’s just that, when you visit the Sun-Maid market at the corporate headquarters, her image is everywhere, staring up at you from packages of raisin products (cranberry chocolate chip raisins, oatmeal raisin apple cookies, yogurt raisin mini snacks, dark chocolate raisins) and related products (seeded muscats or pitted figs, anyone?).

Above all, a trip to Sun-Maid headquarters is a great way to see the result of all those endless rows in fields up and down Highway 99. It’s too bad that Sun-Maid does not give factory tours – “They used to do it, but stopped in 2001,” said store manager Stephanie Mejia. “Everybody always wants to see it” – because then you could’ve followed the fruit from vine to box.

The best Mejia can offer visitors is the aforementioned 10-minute video. A textbook example of corporate puffery, it touts raisins as “an extraordinary cornucopia of the healthful bounties of California” and shows behind-the-scenes footage of the packaging plants (lots of conveyor belts and workers in white hard hats, not red bonnets, alas). It also contains exclusive tape of the harvest and drying process, plus a tutorial on “DOV technology” (drying on the vine) and how the caramelizing of the sugar is timed for maximum “flavor and goodness.”

The word “goodness,” a staple in food marketing literature, is used no less than three times. Viewers also learn that raisins’ “inherent goodness” manifests in its high-fiber levels and low cholesterol properties. It shows its versatility in “sprucing up salads” and “adds flair to main entrees.”

I would defy anyone who visits Sun-Maid’s store not to walk away with a sack full of raisiny goodness. And maybe you’ll want to throw in a “Raisin Your Workout” athletic shirt ($16.99) or Sun-Maid golf balls ($11.99) or the Sun-Maid Monopoly Game ($25).

And, yes, for $29.99, you can buy a reproduction of the bonnet – the original, of course, is ensconced in the Smithsonian. Or you can perhaps wait for Victoria’s Secret to start stocking its knockoff version, made from smoking-hot red satin instead of a dowdy cotton blend.

Sun-Maid Corporate Market

Where: 13525 S. Bethel Ave., Kingsburg

Hours: 9 a.m.-6 p.m. Monday-Friday

Cost: Free

More info: 559-897-6363