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BOB GARFIELD'S AD REVIEW;SATURN, RINEY GO TO HEAD OF THE CRASS

By Published on .

In a grainy opening shot of the Statue of Liberty, the depth of field changes to reveal the urban tangle of utility poles and phone wires obscuring the lady's heroic visage. We are in the mean streets of Jersey City, N.J.

"Once upon a time," says the voice-over, "before the budget cuts and the deficit, there were places where being a kid was no harder than climbing a set of monkey bars. This is the story of what happened when a group of people decided that once upon a time was too long ago."

Thus begins a 5-minute infomercial from Hal Riney & Partners, San Francisco, for Saturn Corp., documenting the construction of thousands of dollars worth of playground equipment in 12 sites around New York. Shot in gritty black and white, the film records the cheerful efforts of Saturn volunteers amid the bleak realities of the inner city.

"Now this is what Saturn's all about," says Chairman Skip LeFauve, clad in a T-shirt and jeans, taking a break from his labors. "Saturn's more than a car. I mean it's always been more than a car. This is sort of an expression of what our philosophy's all about."

Maybe.

The genius behind Saturn marketing from the beginning has been Riney's ability to portray Saturn ownership not as the purchase of sheet metal but as entry into a community-a community of other Saturn owners, of dealership employees and assembly line workers all with a stake in the neighborly, unpretentious Saturn ideal. Not since the Volkswagen Beetle has a car advertiser so successfully cultivated an image of self-effacement and quiet dignity.

So it is natural for Saturn retailers to venture into their local communities and foster in real ways the values expressed in the advertising. And, of course, it is natural for the company to hope someone notices. The history of corporate charity is to manage, as discreetly as possible, within the bounds of taste and propriety, to let as many people as possible know how selfless and caring you are.

That means you can call your facility for families of cancer-stricken children Ronald McDonald House. But you can't put up Golden Arches and a sign that says "2 million sick kids' parents served." The distinction is apparently lost on Saturn.

For what the company spent to dispatch its executives to New Jersey, and to film the construction, it could have built a dozen more playgrounds. For what it's spending to air the spot, it could build a different kind of playground, in every different kind of state of the union.

So much for quiet philanthropy.

At one point in the spot, retailer Jorge Rodriguez remarks on the location, which is not exactly a neighborhood that generates a lot of sales for him.

"We said, `Yeah, this may not be the best PR place, but this is the right place."'

Well, Jorge, no problem. The economic hardships of the neighborhood aren't too limiting when you're broadcasting your munificence clear across the country. In fact, you need the economic hardships of the neighborhood, don't you? Or you'd have no story ostentatiously to tell.

Sure, Saturn is helping these depressed communities. Saturn is also exploiting these depressed communities, shamelessly exploiting them-and all of the cinematically documented ethnic beneficiaries of the corporate largesse.

It may be a different kind of car, but all of a sudden it's a very familiar kind of company.

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