Tuesday, July 10, 2007
Rainier Beer: Television Ads
Working on the Rainier Beer account? You call that work? Well, as I wrote in the very first posting, I feel I've had a lucky life--mostly as witness, once in a while as active participant.
For a dozen years from 1973 to 1985, I was the official writer-producer for all the Rainier Beer ads released during that stretch of time--each year three-to-five radio ads, maybe a half-dozen TV ads, up to a dozen print ads, and whatever other support material was needed. (I especially enjoyed the sales films we were charged to create each year as a framing device to introduce new television ads... proudest of the one I wrote and produced that had a portly Alfred Hitchcock sound- and lookalike as host, pontificating at length about various cinematic matters, including suspense, while a bomb ticked away under the table next to him!)
Around 1971-72, the Rainier Beer Company (based in Seattle) got in touch with the creative group then called Heckler-Bowker to ask them to help pull Rainier out of its puny-sales doldrums. Terry Heckler, the reticent genius designer and concept man extraordinaire, convinced them to try doing totally off-the-wall ads that would become conversation pieces.
With some trepidation, the Rainier bosses agreed... and within six months regional beer sales were rising at a totally unprecedented rate, which then generated an astonishing high market share for many years. This success was the direct result of a television spot called "Frogs" (on the air and generating nationwide attention nearly two decades before Budweiser stole the idea) and a couple of lesser pieces that downplayed the beer itself and instead gave viewers something to laugh or scratch their heads at. Those early ones included the frogs croaking "Rainier," while mosquitoes added "Beer"; a female Liberace type whistling a Rainier ditty; a garish video parody of Lawrence Welk, his bubbles, and his middle-aged ballroom dancers; plus the ad that soon became the greatest single success of all, what everyone soon called "the Motorcycle Spot."
First, a bit more scene-setting; as I stated in an earlier posting, the original writer and H-B co-owner had abandoned ship by early 1973, leaving recently hired me as the writer in charge. Offered up as the buffer between Heckler, Rainier's canny marketing manager Jim Foster, and whoever was on board as support for any particular ad, I also quickly became the account lead, chief bottlewasher, and general patsy. But I also got to write everything that the boss didn't supply himself, meaning I handled all radio and print, plus scripts for the TV ads, a few of which I'd also conceived.
We served other clients too, of course, but it was Rainier that made Heckler Associates famous in the world of advertising, back when almost all ads were still straight and boring, maybe two decades before everyone attempted to be clever, utilizing later gadgets like video imaging and computer animation. We had shoestring budgets and no video tools to speak of, back then, but we did have lots of gumption and eager-to-cooperate production houses (most importantly Kaye-Smith led by director Gary Noren for the television ads, and Bear Creek Studio owned by producer Joe Hadlock and his business-brains wife Mannie, for the audio), not to mention a pretty free hand at dreaming up the concepts.
Over the dozen years we did a string of ads using giant, tilted-horizontal, running beer bottles (older readers may remember Merrill-Lynch's bull that was always "Bullish on America"; Rainier's bottles were "Beerish on America"), some of which also featured Mickey Rooney as a bottle hunter. (The Mick in other spots was also a rowdy cheerleader and then a Nelson Eddy singer who poured beer down his Jeannette MacDonald's bodice!) And there were dozens of visual or audio parodies--of The Twilight Zone, a great b&w Casablanca, Elvis, Ray Charles, Devo ("Is this not beer? It is Rai-nier. B-E-E-R!"), Tom Waits, the song "La Bamba," the Johnny Burnette Trio, the Supremes, and so much more. My Rainier Beer "Greatest Hits" reel in fact was a demand item for years, even helping raise money at school auctions (go figure)!
But I want to focus on a few TV ads that gave me some extra pleasure, or headaches, or both. The Motorcycle Spot, for example, really was the all-Northwest all-time favorite. Very simple: camera looking down a straight back-country road, nothing in sight, then gradually a spot becoming a motorcycle coming straight at the camera, passing close, flash-pan to follow it tailing off toward a looming Mount Rainier--and all the while the shifting gears have been keening/singing, distantly at first, then louder and louder, "Raaaaiiiii-niiieeeerrrr... (zoom by and receding sound) Beeeeerrrrrr..."
Looked amazingly simple, but of course there was much going on behind the scene. Building the soundtrack, for example, we found that we could not stretch the words out over the full 30 seconds, had to settle for 20-plus to be understandable--which meant the visuals had to not show any bike at first. Then trying to capture the actual motorcycle shot we found that we could not pan fast enough as the bike passed, so we had to make a hidden cut during the pan. And neither the weather nor the motorcycle itself cooperated at first--we had to go out filming on three different days to get the bike actually operating properly, at a time when Mount Rainier was also visible!
And, finally, I had the perfect visual tagline to be supered over the end-of-spot receding bike: "Geared for Thirst." But neither Heckler nor the Rainier people were willing to give up the bland accepted slogan "Mountain Fresh to Go," so my tag never appeared. Anyone reading this now has the real scoop of what should have been shown!
Our biggest TV production of all involved the running bottles. We'd already shown them solo and in herds (sixpacks? cases?), when someone came up with the idea of using them like the famous bulls of Pamplona (another idea stolen from us years later). The upshot was we staged a major happening in Seattle's Pioneer Square, with scores of milling fans all awaiting the arrival of the beers. And when they did suddenly show up, everyone had to scatter to escape their onslaught. As scriptwriter I had a great time drafting the on-camera newscaster's 30 seconds--stalling historical text followed by sudden frenzied reporting! "Why do the Rainiers run...?" indeed.
Another spot I remember fondly was a Rainier Light take-off mocking some other beer company's reliance on athletes as spokesmen. Ours showed a cute housewife opening a Rainier Light for herself while cheerfully telling the camera how much she likes all those burly guys advocating Light beers; but as she says, "You don't have to be macho to enjoy Rainier Light..."
Just then, her off-screen husband yells rudely, "Hey, Marlene, get me another beer!" And she explodes back at him, "GET IT YOURSELF, BOB!" (Viewing the footage in slow motion, we amused ourselves marvelling at how angry and distorted and reddened her face was for a slowed-down second.) Then immediately she is calm again, addressing the camera to finish her interrupted thought: "Sometimes it does help, though."
The audience loved it for the amazing performance by the actress and the in-your-face feminist approach in general. But I cherish it also because it's my voice off-camera yelling at her--the best of several uncredited appearances in Rainier spots. (I was handy, of course, pretty much unpaid always, and not allowed to collect residuals!)
The fourth TV ad I want to mention came during 1978, Rainier's 100th-year anniversary, which Heckler cleverly dubbed "The Beercentennial." The special-year ads revisited Rainier's Northwest history, had a brewmaster blow the heads off full schooners like birthday candles, and more.
But we went forward in time too, crafting a science fiction ad that in short order gave the viewer the black monolith from 2001... which turned out to be the facade of the Star Wars bar... and as we push through the doors and on through the rowdy alien crowd we find a back booth and table around which are seated aging lookalikes for Ming the Merciless, Dr. Zarkov, Dale, and Flash Gordon. The supporting characters were local actors, but playing our "Fresh" (as we renamed him) was the one and only Buster Crabbe, the original movie-serial Flash (Tarzan films too), older and greyer but still very much the handsome hero.
Like Mickey Rooney on his best days, Crabbe was full of great stories and definitely fun to be around, still muscular, still swimming great distances every day, still flirting with the women.
And it's Fresh Gordon that brings me to an important aspect of Rainier's advertising that I haven't talked about--the posters we produced to promote the beer. I'll discuss a few of them next time...