Did Hal Riney Kill The Electric Car?

So I’m sitting here watching Who Killed The Electric Car?, a documentary about GM’s EV1 electric car, which was produced in the late 90’s. About 18 minutes into the movie comes a discussion of the TV ads (one shown above) and print work done by Hal Riney.
One of the former EV1 marketing executives interviewed traveled around America and saw the consumer buzz building around the car. In the movie, she says:

“We’d sit down with Hal Riney or marketing executives from GM and say, “How Much?” “How Far?” “How Fast?” These are the 3 questions we’re getting. Please put them in the advertising. It’s not rocket science. And they’d go back and do the exact opposite.”

Still another person says, “”We never saw a TV ad with an electric car scampering
up a hill with a good-looking man or woman draped across it. That’s how they sell cars.”
Not to advocate triteness, but it’s an interesting point. Any new product, as the EV1 truly was, has a learning curve. Go back and look at the early 80’s Apple print ads from Chiat/Day and you’ll see long copy, multi-page ads about what a personal computer can actually do.
But in “Who Killed The Electric Car?”, the creepy, mysterious Riney EV1 ads are revisited, and you have to wonder if Saturn should have insisted on the basics when introducing an electric car. A better strategy might have been to position the cars as just as performance-capable as a gas-powered car, not some radical, mysterious alternative. Perhaps a truly effective ad campaign might have stimulated the demand that was under GM’s radar.

About Dan Goldgeier

Blogging on AdPulp since 2005, Dan Goldgeier is a Seattle-based freelance copywriter with experience at advertising agencies across the U.S. He is a graduate of the Creative Circus ad school, and currently teaches at Seattle's School of Visual Concepts. In addition, he is a regular columnist for TalentZoo.com. Dan published the best of his TalentZoo.com columns in a book entitled View From The Cheap Seats: A Broader Look at Advertising, Marketing, Branding, Global Politics, Office Politics, Sexual Politics, and Getting Drunk During a Job Interview. Look for it on Amazon in paperback and e-book editions.


  1. Following your logic, “1984” should have been all about the product features of the Mac. Riney did beautiful ads for the EV-1 that won a lot of awards. The ads talked about how revolutionary the EV-1 was. If Riney had done features driven ads they would have had to talk about how odd the car looked and that it could only go 75 miles between charges. I’m not sure either of those would have been a big selling points.

  2. John, the fact that those ads won big awards is either totally irrelevant or it reflects negatively on the cult of advertising – depending on how you view the viability of the actual product.

  3. Todd, it’s only relevant because the lady in the movie made it seem as though Riney purposely created ads that would not sell the car. The ads were beautifully written and art directed (by Dave O’Hare and John Doyle, I believe.) In my mind, they did a great job with a car that really wasn’t practical for 99% of the population.