On January 30, 1977, reporter Sid Copeland of The Seattle Times reports on the success of an ad campaign of memorably quirky television commercials for Rainier beer. This isn't surprising news, as the ads have been on the air since 1974, and a few of them have already won awards based on their clever, off-the-wall skits. Particular favorites are commercials featuring the Wild Rainiers, shy humanoid beer bottles who appear in numerous ads and participate in "Running of the Beers" races that mimic the Running of the Bulls in Pamplona, Spain. Nearly 100 television ads will run in multiple incarnations until 1988.
A New Look
During the early 1970s, Rainier Brewing was looking with increasing urgency for a new look in its advertising. Sales were down at the historic Seattle-based brewery, and three different ad agencies in five years had not been able to help. Part of the problem was with Rainier's ads. They were pleasant but staid ads that portrayed the beer mainly on its merits, extoling the virtues of its hops and grains while not really enticing people to drink what was generally described as an average-tasting beer.
In 1974 Rainier created its own in-house ad agency in an effort to develop a unique identity, one that would make it stand out among beers. The brewery began a talent search, and it soon discovered the advertising agency of Heckler-Bowker (later Heckler Associates), which presented the Rainier team with a sheaf of seemingly unorthodox proposals. Rainier hired Heckler on a probationary basis, but the little agency soon landed the account full-time. Within a year, Rainier had become the best-selling beer in Washington.
The Heckler team saw something that previous agencies had not. More and more baby boomers were reaching drinking age, and this generation needed a different kind of commercial to pique its interest. Though the agency had no experience with television commercials, it created a series of 30-second ads designed to create an indelible impression. (Heckler Associates also produced radio and print ads on behalf of Rainier beer, but the television commercials were the most memorable.) Some commercials were parodies of other commercials -- Heckler's first commercial spoofed a commercial of the then-ubiquitous Folger's coffee and its central character, Mrs. Olson. Another commercial from the early years parodied the movie Casablanca. Others were more original. One of them, featuring frogs croaking "Rainier" and "beer," won a national award from the Hollywood Radio and TV Society in the mid-1970s.
The Wild Rainiers
It grew from there. By 1977, the commercials were attracting a loyal following. When it was announced that there would be a "Running of the Beers" at the first Fat Tuesday celebration in Seattle's Pioneer Square in February 1977, thousands of people turned out to watch. The event involved about 15 of the Wild Rainiers, also known as the Mountain Fresh Rainiers, who appeared in many Rainier commercials as part-human, part-bottle creatures bent on avoiding being seen or captured.
The Wild Rainier was a person dressed in black tights and a 40-pound, 8-foot fiberglass Rainier bottle that one Seattle Times article described as "worn much like [an] upside-down canoe suspended horizontally over the shoulder by straps" ("'Wild Rainiers' ..."). The outfit was clumsy and hard to maneuver in, and worse, the wearer's visibility during filming was restricted to about 2 feet directly in front of his feet through an opening in the middle of the outfit. (Fiberglass Rainier cans were also used in some commercials, but the bottle was more ubiquitous.) The Wild Rainiers were often hired on an ad hoc basis; for a 1986 commercial, 10 University of Washington rowing crew members were each paid $100 for a day's work. They became kind of a "thing" -- Wild Rainier ornaments (such as a glass beer bottle with legs), coffee mugs (also with legs), pins, posters, shirts, and hats were produced during the Wild Rainier years.
Mickey Rooney, R-Heads, a Motorcycle, and More
Writer/producer Ed Leimbacher wrote the commercials for Heckler Associates, and the local film-production company Kaye-Smith Productions filmed most of them. There were usually six or seven new commercials produced each year from 1974 to 1988, and they usually ran for 13 weeks. An early favorite in the commercials was Mickey Rooney, who appeared in seven of them. One was a spoof of a song from a 1930s movie, with Rooney (wearing a Canadian Mountie uniform) instead singing the praises of Rainier beer. Two versions this commercial aired on television. Nine times the commercial ended with Rooney pouring the beer into a glass held by an attractive woman, but every 10th time the commercial aired, it ended with Rooney pouring the beer down the front of the woman's low-cut blouse.
Other memorable commercials followed. One 1978 commercial spoofed three science fiction movies in one 30-second spot: 2001, Star Wars, and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Another commercial involved setting thousands of bottle caps on edge, a process that took about 15 hours, to fall like dominoes into a giant R. (The bottoms of the caps first were ground flat so they would fall more predictably. Fortunately, they fell on the first try.) Other commercials parodied Saturday Night Live skits, including the Conehead characters -- which for Rainier commercials morphed into the R-Heads, Conehead-like creatures with giant red Rs atop their heads and a penchant for Rainier beer. Sometimes it was hard to figure out what the commercial meant, but it was this quirkiness that made them popular. "You don't know what it means, but you never ever forget it" affirmed one viewer in a 1980 Seattle Times interview ("The Man ...").
A 1986 Seattle Times article reported that Rainier typically received about five advertising ideas a week, but the only one that had been turned into a commercial up to that time was probably the most legendary of all: the commercial with a motorcycle tooling along a country road with a voice-over crooning "Raiii--neeerrr--beeerrr" and a sunset-tinged Mount Rainier in the background. This commercial aired in early 1986, and it was later followed by a less-remembered sequel with a softer, female voice-over purring "Raiii--neeerrr--liiiggghhhttt" (representing Rainier Light beer) as a woman on a scooter zipped by; different road, more urban scene, but with Mount Rainier still prominent in the background.
There were a few complaints. Anheuser-Busch claimed that Rainier's ad of a team of mountain goats pulling a Rainier wagon copied the Budweiser Clydesdale commercials. Rainier changed the configuration to a single buffalo-sized mountain goat pulling the wagon, but Anheuser-Busch still complained. In the early 1980s the estate of Edgar Rice Burroughs (author of the Tarzan stories) threatened litigation over a Rainier commercial that had a bartending chimpanzee in a t-shirt reading "Cheetah's Place," arguing it copied the Cheetah character in Tarzan books. Rainier cancelled the commercial. It also cancelled at least one commercial because of viewer complaints. A parody of the Lawrence Welk Show, popular among the older generation with its "champagne music" (light big-band music), was pulled when callers objected to the dance band playing the Rainier Waltz on beer bottles.
Back to Bland
In September 1987 Rainier was purchased by a new owner, Bond Brewing of Australia. At the end of the year, the new owner told Heckler Associates that it would no longer handle the Rainier advertising account, and the last of the agency's commercials aired during early 1988. It caused a stir when they disappeared in April, especially when they were replaced by relatively bland commercials showing local sights and happy Rainier beer drinkers declaring "the only beer to drink around here is Rainier" ("Where Are ..."). Rainier explained that the change was made to "increase market share," and claimed that though the Wild Rainiers were "wacky and well-liked, they didn't seem to grow our market share" ("Where Are ...").
Many disagreed. One letter writer to The Seattle Times summed it succinctly: "Most of us agree that Rainier is a good, though thoroughly unexceptional beer. We bought it because their crazy and often clever commercials earned our attention and loyalty" ("A Beer ...").