An Optimistic and Conflicted Salesman

Riney's Genius Was to Make Us Feel Good About Ourselves

By Published on .

In a gem of a movie called "Roger Dodger," there is an exchange in which an embittered adman played by Campbell Scott lectures his wide-eyed nephew:

"You can't sell a product without first making people feel bad," he says, and when the kid asks why, Scott replies: "Because it's a substitution game. You have to remind them that they're missing something from their lives."

Simplistic but pretty much dead-on. So much advertising -- at least the ever-decreasing portion that concerns itself with the nominally advertised product -- is about implying a void that only a purchase can fill. We're manipulated this way from Happy Meals to the grave. (Ever been sold a casket? It's about pleasing a corpse.)

But this was not Hal Riney's way. Whether he was selling wine or cars or presidents of the United States, Riney's genius was to make us feel good -- about ourselves, about our prospects, about our communities, about the small things in life that add up big. His philosophy was the antithesis of Roger Dodger's; it was fundamentally optimistic.

In the world of Hal Riney, who died last week at the age of 75, the product wasn't a shiny package of empty promises. It was the confirmation, via the deft synthesis of reason and emotion, of what you already felt. And what you felt was pretty good to begin with.

"It's morning again in America ..."

Here at AdReview, let's just say, we are not adherents to the cult of Reagan. Yet we get a shiver every time we see this ad -- not because it whitewashes the economic and policy disasters of President Reagan's first term but because it seizes on something true. After Vietnam, Nixon, Gerald Ford's inflation and the Carter era's infamous "malaise," Reagan's assertion of American power and righteousness did alter a nation's view of itself. On the Main Street of our national psyche, once again we could imagine dewy mornings and sunny front porches and flags unabashedly unfurled.

Never mind ruinous deficits. In his trademark warm, deep, comforting staccato, Hal Riney voiced something more important: pride. The pall of American self-loathing had lifted.

Five years later, he pulled the same trick with Saturn -- a new car line not from Tom's of Maine but from General Motors. Maybe that's how he sensed that this clean-sheet-of-paper venture, though a watershed in American industrial history, couldn't be credibly launched from the company's point of view. Riney didn't even make the campaign about the car. He made it about folks -- the folks in rural Spring Hill, Tenn., where the plant was located, and the folks who, aw shucks, might consider rethinking the car-ownership experience.

Which they absolutely did. Riney's bucolic portrayal of spring in Spring Hill established a sense of community which ultimately embraced Saturn owners themselves. Not since Doyle Dane Bernbach turned the VW into a badge of conspicuously inconspicuous consumption had a car so become an expression of owner values. Riney even got 40,000 of them to converge, like the Rainbow Family, on Spring Hill.

Yes, Riney knew how to invoke small-town America as a metaphor for goodness and truth. What isn't entirely clear, at least based on his advertising, was what he actually thought about the plain folk he so glorified. We'd guess conflicted.

On one hand, there was his early work for Oregon's Blitz Weinhard brewery, which celebrated ordinary people doing outdoor work for the incalculable reward of being close to nature. "Got a snow-capped mountain outside my door," the jingle said. "Got a beer called Blitz; don't need no more. Got two good reasons for livin' here: best country in the country and the country's best beer."

But the later, funny Weinhard spots tended to be populated with, shall we say, less noble rustics. There were, for instance, Earl and Vern, dimwitted California truck drivers stopped at the border by an amiable but sly Oregon trooper. This wasn't morning in America. It was "Green Acres."

And what about Riney's most famous comic creations, Bartles & Jaymes, the fictional wine-cooler entrepreneurs? Were Frank and Ed salt-of-the-earth straight shooters, un-jaded by city values and endowed with plain common sense, or just rubes? Ed is mute, and Frank -- in a misguided attempt to sound learned -- stiffly spoke without contractions. Was Riney flipping the bird at pompous M.B.A.s, or at clueless hayseeds? We'd guess both.

We surmise other ambivalences, even about his famous style. In his voice-over scripts, he invariably used -- even fetishized -- short, declarative sentences. ("There is a bear in the woods. For some people, the bear is easy to see. Others don't see it at all. Some people say the bear is tame. Others say it's vicious. And dangerous. ")

A prot�g� of David Ogilvy, Riney for so long seemed the living embodiment -- and most evolved expression -- of Ogilvy's simple, straightforward salesmanship. But in the waning years of his career, the patron saint of the soft sell suddenly embraced spectacle: a 90-second, effects-laden Super Bowl flop for Alamo rental cars in 1994 and, in 1999, a nightmarish $2 million-per-spot folly for the defunct First Union Bank that made the viewer feel not only not good and not only bad but frightened out of his wits.

One wonders: Was Riney breaking away from understatement because he didn't want to be seen as narrow in scope? Was he a victim of success, seduced by big budgets? Was he surveying the advertising landscape and simply giving up? It's a mystery. It's also, thankfully, just a couple of aberrations, maybe even defining his achievements in sharper relief.

We're inclined to focus on and cherish his surpassing grace and simplicity, his insight and salesmanship -- values so grotesquely subordinated nowadays to the cult of entertainment, not to mention the cynical Roger Dodgers of the world.

For those of us who persist in believing that advertising can transcend commerce and craft to gently touch the human heart, Hal Riney, we thank you for your support.

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