The Rise and Fall of the TV Commercial
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The Rise and Fall of the TV Commercial

[Editor's Note: This article is a part of ADText.]

Fig. 1. A TV Set Became a Common Feature of American Living Rooms in the 1950s
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Fig. 1.

A TV Set Became a Common Feature of American Living Rooms in the 1950s1

Although television advertising…is a fascinating and important cultural site, the subject is conspicuously absent from both popular and scholarly literature. There are many good books on postwar television, but precious few resources dedicated to television advertising.2 inline graphic inline graphic

1. Introduction—A Salesman in Every Living Room

Following the end of World War II, television began a meteoric rise from an obscure and expensive technology available in only a few large American cities to become the ascendant mass medium within a few short years. By the early 1950s, a television set was a regular furnishing in most American living rooms, and the uninvited salesmen who came along had a new platform for pitching every manner of goods and services. inline graphic inline graphic

FYI…
Read about the general evolution of advertising from the 1850s to the present elsewhere in ADText.

Television offered advertisers new techniques to promote their products. Moving, visual imagery accompanied by complex soundtracks replaced the frozen words and images of the printed page and the voice, sounds, and music of radio ads. In other words, all of what had preceded television—the face-to-face salesmanship of the 19th century, the printed advertisements of late 19th and early 20th century, and radio jingles and pitches of the 20s, 30s, and 40s—were merged in this new form. It could do any—or all—of the things that had been possible in the previous media. Only some advertisers rushed headlong to embrace the new medium in the early stages of its development, but the others quickly learned that failure to jump on the bandwagon would mean commercial suicide. inline graphic inline graphic

This unit explores the rise of the television commercial, its significance for the practice of advertising, its impact on American cultural values, and its eventual decline as the premier mechanism for commercial communications. inline graphic inline graphic

2. The Emergence of the TV Commercial

Although it was technically ready for popular dissemination in the 1930s, the Great Depression and World War II postponed the actual introduction and promotion of television until factories could focus on producing receivers and Americans had enough money to buy them. Nonetheless, television made its grand public debut at the 1939 New York World's Fair.3 An estimated 1,000 people viewed the telecast of the fair's opening day address on about 200 television sets scattered throughout the New York area.4 inline graphic inline graphic

Fig. 2. The First TV Commercial Looked Something Like This
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Fig. 2.

The First TV Commercial Looked Something Like This5

The first actual television commercial is believed to have been a promotional spot for Bulova watches on July 1, 1941, broadcast on WNBT (New York) as a part of a baseball game:

At precisely 2:29:50 P.M., a Bulova clock showing the time replaced a test pattern, while an announcer told baseball fans it was three o'clock. Bulova paid a total of $9 for the twenty-second spot…Later that same day, Sunoco Oil, Lever Brothers, and Proctor and Gamble sponsored broadcasts on the station…to reach what was estimated as 4,500 viewers.6 inline graphic inline graphic

Although advertising accompanied television programming from its very earliest years, the conventional formats of commercials familiar to modern viewers were not established until the early 1950s. Prior to that time, it was common for the talent on a television program to discuss the sponsor frequently and to deliver commercials while remaining in character. Thus, advertising and entertainment—always dovetailing somewhat—were especially conjoined in the early years. inline graphic inline graphic

FYI…
Read about television advertising in the 1950s in Advertising & Society Review.

In the first decade of postwar television, advertising agencies tended to produce both the programming and the advertising. This allowed for easy blending of ads and entertainment, sensitivity to the concerns of the sponsor, and outright promotion of advertised products as part of the programs themselves. For example, Westinghouse, sponsor of The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, wanted scenes set in the kitchen in order to show off their...