Ad Legend Hal Riney Dies at 75

Hal Riney, who wrote “It’s morning again in America,” brought a distinctly Western voice to the New York-dominated advertising industry, was nominated for an Academy Award and led passengers of an airliner on a daring escape from terrorists, died Monday of cancer at home in San Francisco. He was 75.

Riney created (and often narrated in his own resonant voice) advertising campaigns for Bartles & Jaymes, Gallo, Henry Weinhard’s Private Reserve beer, Perrier waters and Saturn automobiles, among others. His elegant, wry style stood in stark contrast to the jangling commercial world of the latter 20th century. The company he founded, Hal Riney & Partners, earned its reputation on the basis of his distinctive sense of humor and reserve. (Visit Adweek.com’s Creative page to view Hal Riney’s most famous commercials.)

David Ogilvy once proclaimed Riney “far better than I ever was at my best, and he may be better than any other person I have known in this business.”

Riney held fast to his roots throughout his life, never leaving the West Coast, which served as a source of inspiration for his body of work. “People who grew up around Manhattan tend to look at the world through the eyes of a New York City person,” he said in 1986. “People who grow up in Des Moines probably have a broader picture of our country.”

Riney’s work celebrated an optimistic, perhaps even romantic vision of America. It was a land populated with people of simpler values, small town Fourth of July parades and rocking chairs on shady porches. There was little tolerance for fakery. It was this vision he mined in his 1984 campaign for President Ronald Reagan, as well as his advertising for beer and automobiles. 

“The beauty and whimsy, the cleverness and the suggestion seem to be gone from everything,” Riney said in 1982. “And it’s been replaced by two people holding up a product they would never hold up; and talking about it in a way no one ever talked; and being astonished, pleased, delighted or surprised about characteristics of a product which in real life would actually rate no more than a grunt, at best.” 

Riney’s persona catapulted his San Francisco agency to national, and even international acclaim. His style was widely copied, and his disciples went on to found 28 other advertising companies. 

Hal Patrick Riney was born July 17, 1932, in Seattle, and grew up in Longview, Wash., after his parents split when he was 5. He attended the University of Washington, graduating in 1954 with a degree in art. He served as a writer and public relations officer for the U.S. Army in Italy, then returned to take a job in the mailroom at the San Francisco office of BBDO. He was soon promoted to art director.  

“My job was to make logos bigger,” Riney recalled. “Once the logo got big enough, they would have a meeting. Then I would move the logo up or down, or to the right or to the left. Finally, I would be told to make the headline bigger. Because compared to the logo, it was now too small.” 

Nevertheless, he became the agency’s creative director nine years later. It was at BBDO that he hired composer Paul Williams in the mid-1960s to create a musical theme for San Francisco’s Crocker National Bank. The resulting song, “We’ve Only Just Begun,” went on to become a No. 1 hit, recorded by The Carpenters.

In 1969, Riney and lifelong friend Dick Snider wrote and directed Somebody’s Waiting, a documentary about patients at a Sonoma County mental hospital. The film, shot in their spare time, was nominated for an Academy Award that year.

After a stint as creative director of the Botsford Ketchum agency, Riney opened the San Francisco office of Ogilvy & Mather in 1976.

Following a successful celebratory campaign for Gallo Wines, Riney worked directly for Ernest Gallo in the creation of Bartles & Jaymes Wine Coolers. He named the brand and, with art director Jerry Andelin, designed the packaging and shot innovative TV commercials with two fictitious entrepreneurs who had allegedly invented the product.

The campaign was an evocation of Riney’s lifelong distrust of business school culture. (“The best thing to do with an MBA,” he once said, “is to take it out and get it drunk.”) The two main characters said they’d learned how to start a business with the help of a mail-order course from Harvard, and spoofed market research in wry dialogue: “Ed has engaged in a scientific program to determine which foods go well with wine coolers,” said Bartles. “So far Ed has only found two foods which don’t: kohlrabi, which is a vegetable sort of like a turnip, and candy corn.” 

In l984, Riney joined Reagan’s so-called Tuesday Team, a gathering of campaign professionals put together to re-elect the president. He created a TV campaign that depicted a happy, contented, safe America, and asked why we’d ever want to return to the days before Reagan’s tenure. 

The following year, Riney purchased the O&M office and renamed it Hal Riney & Partners. Shortly thereafter, the agency worked on the introduction of General Motors’ Saturn brand. It was the most successful new model launch in GM history. 

The agency went on to create campaigns for John Deere, Alamo, Blue Cross and  Dreyer’s Ice Cream. In 2003, the shop was sold to Publicis Groupe and renamed Publicis & Hal Riney. Its founder stepped down, taking the title of chairman emeritus.

An avid outdoorsman, Riney traveled to far-flung parts of Norway, Alaska, the Western states and Honduras. “Why I prefer fly-fishing, and being alone on a river to almost any other recreation,” he said, “is because it’s so much the opposite of what I have to do, day in and day out.”

On a trip to Honduras in 1982, Riney’s Sahsa Air Lines flight was hijacked on the runway in Tegucigalpa. Honduran rebels with semi-automatic pistols and bombs rigged with dynamite held the plane for a full day until, sensing a moment of inattention, Riney opened a plane door and leaped to safety with several other passengers.

Throughout his career, Riney maintained a prickly, curmudgeonly presence that to some seemed at odds with his celebrations of American openness and innocence. But in his private life, he was a doting father who wrote and illustrated hundreds of unabashedly sentimental letters to his children. One of these included a poem explaining that the Easter Bunny was actually a lawyer for a special interest group who, once a year, assuaged his guilt by distributing candy.

Riney is survived by his wife, Elizabeth Sutherland Riney, and his children, Ben, 21, and Samantha, 19, from a previous marriage. In lieu of flowers, memorial gifts may be sent to Save the Children at www.savethechildren.org or to Earthjustice at www.earthjustice.org. The family will announce a date for a memorial.

Jeff Goodby is co-chairman of Goodby, Silverstein & Partners.