Advertising Educational Foundation

[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

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

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 brand of appliances. inline graphic inline graphic

A decade later, networks assumed greater control of programming and the single sponsors of early TV shows gave way to multiple sponsorship. This brought about a more balanced sharing of power—sponsors could always refuse to underwrite programs if they did not like content—and a less crass connection between ads and entertainment. By the 1960s, the single sponsorship of the early years (e.g., Kraft Music Hall, Hallmark Hall of Fame, The Kelvinator Kitchen, Gillette Cavalcade of Sports, etc.) practically disappeared and most program titles ceased to include sponsors' names. inline graphic inline graphic

Watch "Lucy Does a TV Commercial" on

Live performance was another important characteristic of early commercials. Videotape was not in use and filming took considerable advanced planning. Both the shows and the commercials were live and many were performed before studio audiences. In a 1952 episode of I Love Lucy,7 the audience gets a behind-the-scenes look at how these early commercials were performed. TV cameras of that era were large contraptions and a stage set might have as few as two of them. During the show, one of the cameras would be wheeled over to the side of the stage where a live presenter would pitch the sponsor's product—often with demonstrations or other visual aids. inline graphic inline graphic

Fig. 3. Tables Are Set on One Side of the Studio Stage for Live Product Demonstrations
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Fig. 3.

Tables Are Set on One Side of the Studio Stage for Live Product Demonstrations8

Fig. 4. A Presenter Is Hired and Must Practice to Avoid Embarrassing the Sponsor
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Fig. 4.

A Presenter Is Hired and Must Practice to Avoid Embarrassing the Sponsor9

Lucy's Practice Runs Highlight the Real Potential for Things to Go Wrong
Video 1.

Lucy's Practice Runs Highlight the Real Potential for Things to Go Wrong10

The commercial in Video 2 typifies many of the live commercials that aired during the first decade of postwar television. News presenter John Cameron Swayze presents the sponsor's commercial message—in this case a demonstration of the durability of Timex watches. Such live demonstrations (a watch strapped to an outboard motor, or fastened inside a washing machine, etc.) were powerful displays of the sponsor's message. However, these live commercials also carried certain liabilities—most of which were later remedied by using filmed instead of live commercials. For example, the Westinghouse refrigerator commercial in Video 3 is a classic instance of what might go wrong. inline graphic inline graphic

This Early TV Commercial Demonstration Was Presented Live
Video 2.

This Early TV Commercial Demonstration Was Presented Live11

This Classic TV Commercial from the 1950s Illustrates the Liabilities of Live Commercials
Video 3.

This Classic TV Commercial from the 1950s Illustrates the Liabilities of Live Commercials12

These are some other snafus that occurred during the period of live commercials.13

  • Smoke rings blown by presenter disturbed by hot lights and air currents of TV studio

  • Camera dwells overly long on static objects like a bar of soap

  • Electric razor refuses to turn off

  • Model praises Lipton Tea while brewing a pot of sponsor's brand, Tender Leaf

  • Spokesperson praises reliability of sponsor's lighters while futilely flicking a non-responsive lighter

  • Holding sponsor's loaf of bread aloft, announcer urges viewers to buy competitor's brand

  • After saying, "Never an irritation," cigarette pitchman coughs apoplectically

  • Camera catches beer drinker spitting beer into a pail at his side

  • White and shiny surfaces produce inordinate amounts of glare

  • Crowd shot at sporting event catches married men with women other than their wives inline graphic inline graphic

By the mid-1950s, film overtook and replaced live commercials. This shift in technique allowed advertisers to move away from the talking heads and product demonstrations to commercials that showed more fanciful as well as more realistic presentations of the advertised products. One especially popular filmed commercial series from the 1950s showed "dancing" packs of Old Gold cigarettes. These commercials were popular with the public as were other commercials that used other cinematic techniques like trick photography and cartoons. inline graphic inline graphic

Dancing Packs of Cigarettes Were Popular with Early TV Audiences
Video 4.

Dancing Packs of Cigarettes Were Popular with Early TV Audiences14

Photographic Tricks Enthralled 1950s TV Audiences
Video 5.

Photographic Tricks Enthralled 1950s TV Audiences15

Commercials Like This One Helped Increase Brand Awareness in the 1950s
Video 6.

Commercials Like This One Helped Increase Brand Awareness in the 1950s16

3. Commercial Formats

Any scheme purporting to encompass the various formats of local and national TV commercials will surely overlook some of the possibilities because the variety is so complex. Nonetheless, the following list provides a guide to some of the most frequent and enduring types of commercial presentations. inline graphic inline graphic

  1. 1.

    A Typical Product Demonstration from the Early Years of TV Commercials
    Video 7.

    A Typical Product Demonstration from the Early Years of TV Commercials17

  2. 2.

    This Commercial Quotes User Opinions and Claims
    Video 8.

    This Commercial Quotes User Opinions and Claims18

  3. 3.

    Ronald Reagan Endorses a Product
    Video 9.

    Ronald Reagan Endorses a Product19

  4. 4.

    The Hidden Camera Technique Was a Mainstay of Early Commericals
    Video 10.

    The Hidden Camera Technique Was a Mainstay of Early Commericals20

  5. 5.

    Consumers Are Interviewed in This Commercial from the 1950s
    Video 11.

    Consumers Are Interviewed in This Commercial from the 1950s21

  6. 6.

    A "Slice of Life" Commercial
    Video 12.

    A "Slice of Life" Commercial

  7. 7. Animation. The movies popularized cartoon animation in shorts and feature-length films long before the advent of television commercials. However, the familiar form was easily adapted for use in filmed commercials and continues to be used, even today. Computer graphics and complex animation techniques (such as those used in Avatar) make their way quickly into the commercial mix as soon as they become available. inline graphic inline graphic

    The Animated Characters Snap, Crackle, and Pop Promote Kellogg's Rice Krispies
    Video 13.

    The Animated Characters Snap, Crackle, and Pop Promote Kellogg's Rice Krispies22

    View a slide show featuring former Leo Burnett creative director David Gunn's 12 types of television commercials.

  8. 8.

    Burger King Compares Its Product to McDonalds' Hamburgers
    Video 14.

    Burger King Compares Its Product to McDonalds' Hamburgers23

4. The Infomercial

The infomercial, a long-format television commercial lasting from several minutes up to half an hour or so, has become a staple of the modern TV lineup. These long commercials differ from ordinary commercials in terms of both their length and the fact that the "programming" is entirely commercial in nature. Infomercials are common in off-hours (say, midnight to 6 a.m.) on cable channels and sometimes appear on network stations as well (e.g., Saturday morning on Fox television). inline graphic inline graphic

The format of an infomercial is unabashedly commercial. A professional pitch artist talks about a problem, offers a product that will provide a remedy, and exhorts viewers to call immediately. Frequently, an offer is increased in some way if the viewer calls within a specified time period. The infomercial format actually originated during the early years of television when long commercial messages and a merger of advertising and programming were common. Later FTC regulations restricted the amount of advertising in relation to programming but the business lobby successfully lobbied to have such regulations lifted. The modern version of infomercials may have originated in the 1970s when a Tijuana station began broadcasting hour-long programs about real estate. The station, licensed in Mexico but broadcasting in English, was not subject to FTC restrictions. This format evolved in the 1980s and 1990s to include promotions of exercise equipment, motivational products, clothing, jewelry, kitchen aids, and a variety of other products. The infomercial format has also been used in televangelism and political campaigns.24 inline graphic inline graphic

Although prohibitively long to include here, the edited example in Video 15 demonstrates the format. Notice the FTC-required notice that it is a paid commercial announcement at the beginning, the set up of the problem, the offer of a solution, and the too-good-to-be-true selling pitch near the end. Well-known infomercials and presenters include Billy Mays (1958-2009) for Kaboom cleaner and Vince Shlomi for ShamWow!. inline graphic inline graphic

Highlights from a 1990's Infomercial
Video 15.

Highlights from a 1990's Infomercial25

The infomercial format is so notorious and so well-known that is frequently parodied. inline graphic

This Video Parodies the Infomercial Format
Video 16.

This Video Parodies the Infomercial Format26

Although strictly speaking infomercials lie outside the ordinary formats of TV commercials, they indicate some important features of commercials in general:

  • • Programming is to a large degree offered as a way of creating an audience for commercial messages.

  • • Programming and commercial messages are merged so that it is often difficult to distinguish programming from commercial messages.

  • • At least some viewers exhibit extraordinary tolerance for and attentiveness to commercial messages.

  • • Experimentation with commercial formats often produces successful new ways to deliver marketing communications to potential consumers. inline graphic inline graphic

5. The Social World—According to TV Commercials

Since its inception in post-World War II America, the TV commercial has promoted not only products and promises of their benefits but also a social world that has idealized some lifestyles and glorified certain cultural values. Although modern audiences are somewhat familiar with early programming through re-runs of shows like I Love Lucy, these programs are never shown as they were seen in the early years of television. That is, although they are shown with commercial interruptions just as early audiences saw them, the commercials today are modern ones and not those that appeared originally in conjunction with the programming. inline graphic inline graphic

These early television commercials buttressed, supported, and often went beyond the depictions of social life in the programs. For example, most of the Lucy shows took place in the Arnaz living room, Ricky's nightclub, or another simple interior set. However, the television commercials often transported viewers into diverse homes, depicting the lives of myriad other individuals and their domestic situations. inline graphic inline graphic

In this section, we examine gender and ethnicity as they have been depicted over the course of the history of the television commercial, because it was not only programs like Murphy Brown and The Cosby Show that influenced how Americans think about gender and race,27 but also the commercial mini-dramas that surrounded them. inline graphic inline graphic

In writing about early TV programming, professor of history and family studies Stephanie Coontz notes: "Contrary to popular opinion, Leave It to Beaver was not a documentary."28 By this she means that the audience often assumed that the world of June Cleaver and her ideal family—stay-at-home, happy, and satisfied mom; working, but never grumpy, exhausted, or burned-out dad; and good-looking, intelligent, and slightly mischievous children—was a reality to which they ought to aspire. The real world, according to electronic media and film studies professor Mary Ann Watson, was often not at like this. She writes:

During the 1950s and 1960s increasing numbers of married women with families entered the labor force. Yet, television continued to depict mothers as people whose lives were lived entirely vis-à-vis their husbands and children. Those women in real life, who looked for personal satisfaction outside the home, or just as a break from full-time nurturing, had no prime-time counterparts to validate their feelings.29 inline graphic inline graphic

As apparently satisfied as she is, June Cleaver never jumped with joy or sang and danced around her kitchen. This hyper-exaggeration was left to the TV commercials which added some elements to the mix. By being the savvy shopper who knew not only the tastes of her family but also what they needed to be healthy and live their perfect lives, the commercial mom was also the ideal consumer for whom shopping for and delivering to her family provided ultimate selfworth and personal satisfaction. inline graphic inline graphic

AD Views is a rich source for studying commercial depictions of American society from the 1950s to the 1980s.

A bit of Internet searching through online archives will turn up many examples of the sort of woman valorized in these early TV commercials. For example, the happy family who eats Grape Nuts Flakes depicts this situation. The TV mom's kitchen is spotless, her family is outfitted in clean, well-pressed clothing, and she is ebullient in her pleasure of nurturing them. inline graphic inline graphic

This 1950s Commercial Depicts an Idealized, Happy, Nuclear Family
Video 17.

This 1950s Commercial Depicts an Idealized, Happy, Nuclear Family30

Note especially the authoritative male voice of the narrator who tells the woman how to behave, describes the emotions she should have, and directs her as to the best brand of breakfast cereal. This female-consumer-cum-male-announcer is typical of early TV commercials—just as it had been typical of the authoritative voice in the print ads of earlier decades.31 In fact, many commercials from this early period depict a perplexed housewife—unsure of how to solve ordinary household problems or what products to use—and a male who arrives on the scene deus ex machina just in time to solve problems and recommend products. inline graphic inline graphic

Two classic examples of this situation occur in the following commercials. In the Ajax commercial, a woman who is unable to get her wash as clean as she thinks it ought to be is magically rescued by a knight in shining armor. He transfers in a flash the "brighter-than-bright" color of his white horse to her clothes.32 Awe-struck, she is mesmerized by the transformation and delighted with the solution he provides. inline graphic inline graphic

The woman in the Glad Wrap commercial takes this gender disparity one step further. It is her overbearing husband who intimidates her in the first place by wanting to put a smelly container of his "famous salad dressing" in her spotless, odorless refrigerator. She tries, to no avail, to fend him off, but another man in white saves the day. The "Man from Glad" arrives for the denouement and provides clinging plastic wrap that will contain the odors. Thus, the husband gets what he wants, the wife's refrigerator is saved, and there she is—a pawn torn between two men, one of whom has created her problem and the other of whom has solved it. inline graphic inline graphic

A White Knight Saves a Housewife's Day
Video 18.

A White Knight Saves a Housewife's Day33

Another Man Saves the Day for a Housewife
Video 19.

Another Man Saves the Day for a Housewife34

These images are typical of the housewife of the 1950s and 1960s TV commercials. In fact, Jean Kilbourne, an outspoken critic of gender representations in American advertising, describes the social world of advertisements in her 1987 filmed lecture, Killing Us Softly, in these terms:

They tell us who we are and who we should be. Advertising reflects a mythological world in which almost everyone is white, a world in which men outnumber women by two to one, and almost all the women are young and beautiful. Forty percent of all women in television commercials are under 40, which is hardly the real world. In addition, it's a world in which absolutely everyone is heterosexual. And furthermore, for the most part, still living in a nuclear family in which the man goes out to work while the woman stays home with the children. Today this accurately describes 12% of American households—so much for the real world. It's a world in which no one is ever disabled, either physically or mentally, unless you count the housewives that talk to little men in toilet bowls…(emphasis added). inline graphic inline graphic

Depictions of children and ads directed to children in the 1950s and 1960s stressed similar divisions of male and female gender roles. See, for example, the Barbie, GI Joe and other gendered commercials in ADText.

Although this remark is typical of Kilbourne's attempt at adding humor to what she considers an otherwise serious situation, the joke is closer to the reality of what the TV commercials actually showed than not. For example, a commercial for Bully toilet bowl cleaner shows a woman talking to her toilet. Although certainly intended as a forceful visual demonstration of the intimidating task of keeping a toilet bowl spotless, it does show the housewife as overpowered. Only when she acquires the proffered product (promoted, of course, by an off-stage male chorus) does she acquire the power to fight back. Commercial imagery like this helped set the stage for the feminist movement of the 1970s. inline graphic inline graphic

This Woman Converses with Her Toilet
Video 20.

This Woman Converses with Her Toilet35

When it came to depictions of race and ethnicity, the world according to TV commercials was white, English-speaking, and "mainstream" without identifiable ethnic characteristics. TV families never seemed to have menorahs in their dining rooms, eat tortillas instead of bread, or speak any kind of "accented" English. This did not mean, however, that ethnic imagery never appeared in TV commercials. When it did, it was always in the most stereotypic and frequently denigrating manner. inline graphic inline graphic

Although there are many examples of such depictions,36 two instances are particularly memorable because they created characters that stood in for entire populations of people. The first of these is the infamous Frito Bandito, a mustachioed, sombrero-wearing south-of-the-border type who speaks with a Spanish accent. His role is "spokesman" for Frito-brand corn chips. As a Mexican or Mexican-American, he is presented as a natural authority on all things having to do with tortillas. He claims that it's impossible to eat only one and is frequently discovered to be the culprit when the Fritos "disappear" quickly. inline graphic inline graphic

The Frito Bandito from 1960s Television
Video 21.

The Frito Bandito from 1960s Television37

This kind of ethnic imagery—of simple-mindedness, of thievery, of shortness of stature, of sombreros and Mexican shawls—ultimately did not sit well with the Mexican-American community which eventually mustered a protest. Although the imagery was modified somewhat over time (his guns were removed after the Kennedy assassination, his 5-o'clock shadow and his gold tooth disappeared), he disappeared from the small screen by 1971—but not before practically every TV viewer could identify him and describe his attitudes and behaviors, and sing his song. inline graphic inline graphic

Equally well-known was Juan Valdez, the icon for Colombian coffee. Valdez was frequently seen leading his burro through the coffee plantations of Colombia and selecting only the finest of coffee beans. Perhaps less offensive than the Frito Bandito, the imagery of Valdez picking coffee served to underscore the tedious and poorly paid work of picking coffee beans for export. This imagery vividly depicts differences between those who produce and those who consume. As social critic Judith Williamson pointed out in her film, A Sign is a Fine Investment (1983), advertisements typically obscure the labor and production in favor of consumption and possession. Valdez as producer and North American coffee-drinker as consumer is an all-too-familiar depiction of us versus them. It is the story of the "haves" and the "have-nots," of wealth and poverty, of rich countries and their relation to the Third World. inline graphic inline graphic

Juan Valdez as the Spokesperson for Colombian Coffee
Video 22.

Juan Valdez as the Spokesperson for Colombian Coffee38

This early commercial imagery of gender and ethnicity began to give way in the 1970s in response to a variety of social movements and transformations, including civil rights, feminism, and the rise of the OPEC cartel. Advertising did not lead the way in depicting these social transformations, but it was impossible for it not to become involved. After all, if advertising reflects society as the industry typically claims, the society it purported to reflect was no longer a world willing to idealize the likes of June Cleaver or to observe the shenanigans of the Frito Bandito in silence. inline graphic inline graphic

These changes were however far from complete or universally accepted. There were those who believed that a women's place still ought to be in the home, but there were others who just as forcefully believed that women ought to stand on equal footing with men in the world of work. What was advertising to do? Which model of gender should it depict? Although advertisers frequently complained that they were "damned if we do and damned if we don't," they often responded by trying to be all things to all people. Ads sometimes depicted women with a baby in one hand and a briefcase in the other—a not altogether atypical situation for many women who aspired to live meaningful lives both at home and in society at large. inline graphic inline graphic

The commercial in Video 23 illustrates how some of the ads from the 1970s depicted these changes. Split-screen effects allowed there to be more than one kind of woman and to show the real conflicts that many women felt. inline graphic inline graphic

This 1970s TV Commercial Reflects Changes in Gender Role Expectations
Video 23.

This 1970s TV Commercial Reflects Changes in Gender Role Expectations39

By contrast, some marketers viewed feminism as creating new market opportunities for products directed to the "new woman." Nowhere was this more evident than in the positioning and advertising of Virginia Slims cigarettes—"the slim cigarette for women only." In addition to a plethora of print ads for Virginia Slims, this new "liberated" woman also appeared in TV commercials prior to the 1972 ban advertising tobacco products on television. inline graphic inline graphic

A Pre-1972 Virginia Slims Commercial
Video 24.

A Pre-1972 Virginia Slims Commercial40

In whatever mode (TV or print), the ads linked the modern Virginia Slims woman with the oppressed women of previous generations. The ads claimed that this new woman—by choosing the specially designed cigarette that signified liberation—made a clear break with the past. inline graphic inline graphic

Advertising took a more cautious approach to ethnicity during that same period. Although the blatant imagery of the 1950s and 1960s was toned down and gradually disappeared, TV commercials seemed not to know what to do in its place. Slowly non-white individuals and families crept into advertisements, but nearly always in an understated, somewhat subtle manner. inline graphic inline graphic

For example, AT&T commercials urged Americans to "reach out and touch someone" by making telephone calls. And because not only white people but people of color also used the telephone, it was one of the first national advertisers to depict ethnically diverse consumers in their advertising. The next commercial shows a series of vignettes of people having telephone conversations. In one of the vignettes, a Black mother and her son are shown. However, this representation of non-white consumers is placed in the context of a variety of other customers—all of whom are white—also making phone calls. The depiction of a "typical" family in a TV commercial that just happens not to be white would not occur until much later. Only recently have commercials begun to depict interracial interactions and relationships in manner that does not depict one as superior or inferior to the other. inline graphic inline graphic

"This 1970s AT&T Commercial Features Ethnically Diverse Images
Video 25.

"This 1970s AT&T Commercial Features Ethnically Diverse Images41

The most typical way that 1970s ads reflected the social changes of the 1960s was through a code that was developed to send the message that the brand was intended for consumers of all sorts. The following print ad illustrates how this code tended to work. In this ad for toothpaste—a product clearly not restricted by gender or ethnic differences—the split-image technique shows a diversity of consumers. Since it would be unrealistic to show the typically individual act of tooth brushing as a communal or group activity, the ad shys away from selecting any one person—who would necessarily have a specific gender and color—to represent the consumer. Just as pluralizing the he or she pronoun solves the gender distinction in the English language, pluralizing the consumer solves that problem in visual depictions. inline graphic inline graphic

Fig. 5. Ethnic Diversity among Models Signals Relevance of Product for Everyone
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Fig. 5.

Ethnic Diversity among Models Signals Relevance of Product for Everyone42

Not all of these efforts produced realistic situations, but they did go a long way toward posing a different set of cultural values. Inclusivity was good business practice, but it also dovetailed with a changing social ideology and cast advertising in a more favorable light for many. An early example of this effort at inclusivity is the Kraft Food Company 75th anniversary commercial which depicts a family reunion. Although almost everyone in the commercial is white, there are a few non-whites as well. inline graphic inline graphic

This Spot for Aluminum Includes Non-Whites
Video 26.

This Spot for Aluminum Includes Non-Whites43

Contemporary TV commercials have indeed come a long way from these early depictions. It is possible only now to see the diversity of consumers in the world according to advertising. For example, the following TV commercials from 2010 illustrate the contemporary standards for representing gender and ethnicity. inline graphic inline graphic

This Cheerios Commercial Uses African-Americans Actors (2010)
Video 27.

This Cheerios Commercial Uses African-Americans Actors (2010)44

6. The End of Advertising As We Know It

…[N]ot enough people understand that advertising encompasses communication of all kinds, which is the whole reason why advertising, as you know it, is dead.45

—Sergio Zyman (2002)

The very term advertising has fallen out of favor recently with many people in the business world. Marketing and communications have taken its place. What is at issue is not the idea that businesses should promote their products but rather that the practice of advertising sometimes seems to forget its raison d'être. Sergio Zyman, author of The End of Advertising As We Know It (2002), offers this mantra to those who do not focus sufficiently on the link between advertising and selling: The goal of advertising is to sell more stuff to more people more often for more money (p. 14 and throughout). inline graphic inline graphic

Zyman believes that the business of advertising has focused too much on creativity, on producing award-winning commercials, and on the status quo rather than on the realization that advertising encompasses the full set of communications between a company and its clients. Those communications include not only commercial messages—in print, radio, TV or another medium—but also how companies interact with their employees and their consumers, the quality of the products and services they deliver, packaging and delivery, how the telephone is answered, how delivery people are dressed, and so on. In short, advertising in reality is comprised of the full set of communications between a company and its customers. inline graphic inline graphic

There is another reason why advertising as we have known it throughout most of the 20th century is outmoded—namely, that the TV commercial is no longer the powerful communicator that it was in the 1950s, 1960s, and most of the rest of the century. The combination of audience fragmentation that cable ushered in, of commercial avoidance that video recording devices made possible, and the shift from passive to active reception occasioned by the Internet have diminished the importance and domination of the TV commercial as the major mode of communication between businesses and customers. A variety of marketing communications modes now share the limelight. inline graphic inline graphic

The TV commercials that remain are often more targeted to specific audiences—because, quite simply, audiences are more specialized. People interested in food watch cooking programs; nature lovers watch the National Geographic channel; sports fans watch ESPN; and so on. As a result, marketing communications can be fine-tuned to the identifiable interests of potential consumers. The consequence of this for the content of contemporary commercials is profound. Ads are more sensitive in their portrayal of gender and ethnicity and even sexuality nowadays. Women appear in both work and domestic situations without any assumptions that either one is the more appropriate setting. TV families are no longer only vanilla but rather represent a much wider range of diversity than ever before. Thus, the social worlds and cultural values depicted in TV commercials no longer provide the forceful models of domesticity and gender differentiation that they once did but take a more flexible approach. They must, of necessity, speak to consumers more softly and with greater sensitivity—otherwise it is all too easy to shut them out. Modern marketers know this, of course, and they make use of the TV commercial as a part of the marketing mix, rather than depending on it as the centerpiece of the relationship they attempt to engineer between those who sell and those who buy. inline graphic inline graphic

7. Conclusion

Although the TV commercial remains an important part of the marketing mix, it is no longer as preeminent as it was for the latter half of the 20th century. New media—Internet banners, interactive advertising, social media, and so on—vie with TV for consumers' attention. Whatever its future, there is no denying the important roles that commercials have played in promoting certain lifestyles and values as well as marketing. inline graphic inline graphic

William M. O'Barr

William M. O'Barr is Professor of Cultural Anthropology at Duke University where he has taught since 1969. He holds secondary appointments in the Departments of Sociology and English. He has been a visiting professor at Northwestern, Dalhousie, and Oxford. He has been recognized for his outstanding undergraduate teaching by both the Duke University Alumni Association and Trinity College (Duke University). His course Advertising and Society: Global Perspectives is one of Duke’s most popular undergraduate courses. His seminars include Advertising and Masculinity, Children and Advertising, and The Language of Advertising.

He is author and co-author of ten books, including Culture and the Ad: Exploring Otherness in the World of Advertising, Rules versus Relationships, and Just Words: Law, Language, and Power. He has conducted anthropological research in Brazil, China, East Africa, India, Japan, and the US. In addition to his interest in social and cultural aspects of advertising, Professor O'Barr has researched law in a variety of cultural settings.

In 2000, he founded Advertising & Society Review and served as editor from 2000 to 2005. He is author of, which will consist of more than 20 units published as supplements to A&SR.


1. Ad*Access On-Line Project—Ad #TV0213. John W. Hartman Center for Sales, Advertising, & Marketing History. Duke University Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library:

2. Lawrence R. Samuel, Brought to You By: Postwar Television and the American Dream, (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2001), ix.

3. Samuel, 3-4.

4. Wikipedia contributors, "1939 New York World's Fair," Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, (accessed June 28, 2010).

5. A website at (accessed June 28, 2010) shows what purports to be an image of the first TV commercial. However, the time on the face of the watch does not agree with Samuel's description of the 1941 broadcast. Both, however, agree that the Bulova commercial in 1941 was the first TV commercial.

6. Samuel, 4.

7. Season 1, Episode 30, "Lucy Does a TV Commercial." Original air date May 5th 1952.

8. "ILL - LDATC Part 3/3" YouTube.

9. "ILL - LDATC Part 2/3" YouTube.

10. "ILL - LDATC Part 2/3" YouTube.

11. "Vintage Timex Commercial" YouTube.

12. From the author's collection.

13. These examples are drawn from Samuel pp. 19-22.

14. "Old Gold Cigarettes Commercial (1952)" YouTube.

15. "Lucky Strike Cigarette Commercial: Square Dance (1948)" Internet Archive.

16. "Muriel Cigars Commercial (1950s)" YouTube.

17. "Norwich: Pepto-Bismol, 1950s (dmbb18816)" AdViews Digital Collection, John W. Hartman Center for Sales, Advertising, & Marketing History, Duke University Libraries.

18. "More Doctors Smoke Camels Than Any Other Cigarette" YouTube.

19. From the author's collection.

20. "Folger's Crystals Commercial" YouTube.

21. "P&G: Crest Toothpaste, 1950s (dmbb36815)" AdViews Digital Collection, John W. Hartman Center for Sales, Advertising, & Marketing History, Duke University Libraries.

22. "snap crackle pop old rice krispies commercial" [sic] YouTube.

23. "Burger King/McDonald's Rivalry Commercial (1986)" YouTube.

24. Infomercial (Wikipedia article).

25. "Cher Aquasentials Skin Care Infomercial Part Three 3." YouTube.

26. "BRICK: A Vince from ShamWow Parody" YouTube.

27. A full sociological analysis would focus on the triumvirate of race, class and gender as the classic social distinctions deserving consideration. Today this would likely be expanded to include sexuality as well. However, the case of advertising imagery presents special problems in considering all four topics. The display of social class is extremely limited in advertising due to its focus on consumers with spending power and its slant toward aspirational rather than literal culture. Sexuality, although it has begun to slip into mainstream commercial imagery in limited circumstances, is typically hetero-normative except in so-called niche advertising directed to "special interest" groups such as gays and lesbians.

28. Stephanie Coontz quoted in Mary Ann Watson, Defining Visions: Television and the American Experience in the 20th Century (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2008), 63.

29. Watson, 63.

30. Post: Grape-Nuts Flakes Cereal, 1950s-1960s (dmbb26604). AdViews Digital Collection, John W. Hartman Center for Sales, Advertising, & Marketing History, Duke University Libraries.

31. See, for example, the analyses of earlier advertising by Stuart Ewen in Captains of Consciousness (1976) and Roland Marchand in Advertising the American Dream (1985).

32. Freudian analysts will also note that the instrument of this transformation is his lance.

33. From the author's collection.

34. From the author's collection.

35. "Bully Toilet Bowl Cleanser TV Commercial" YouTube.

36. See William M. O'Barr, Culture and the Ad: Exploring Otherness In The World Of Advertising. (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1994).

37. "Frito LaY- Frito Bandito" Google Videos.

38. "Colombian Coffee - Commercial Classic 1985" YouTube.

39. "Retro Enjoli commercial" YouTube.

40. "Virginia Slims ads (1968/D)" Internet Archive.

41. From the author's collection.

42. From the author's collection.

43. "Western Aluminum Producers" Corporate Advertising Prt 1. John W. Hartman Center for Sales, Advertising, & Marketing History. Duke University Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library:

44. "Breakfast Odd Couple ! | Cheerios Cereal Ad" YouTube.

45. Sergio Zyman. The End of Advertising as We Know It. (John Wiley and Sons, 2003), 1.