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They’re here to stay, folks.  As a matter of fact, without them, at least one industry would collapse and, it’s safe to say, entertainment as we know it would be hugely curtailed.  They, of course, are television commercials.

It’s hard to imagine, but in the beginning television programming was broadcast without commercials.  But then, on July 1, 1941, before the broadcast of the Brooklyn Dodgers and Philadelphia Phillies baseball game, came the spot seen and heard throughout television-land.  Bulova paid $9 for their twenty second graphic of a clock superimposed over a United States map, with the voice-over, “America runs on Bulova time!”

The rest, as they say, is history.  Advertisers had been quick to embrace the media of radio to expand the audience for their ads, and they were just as quick to enter the television arena.

A television commercial is created to promote interest in and sales of a certain product.  In the early days they usually ran about one-minute long and the advertiser bought time wherever he could, whenever he could, just to get the word out there.

Over the years the process has been honed to a science, with advertisers doing intensive studies to find the exact right target audience for their product.  They research program types, geographic areas and, seasons, and target audience ages so their product is offered to the optimal group most likely to purchase what they’re advertising.

Saturday morning children’s cartoon shows and programs are the perfect venue for cereal, candy and toy commercials.  Prime time television viewing hours, when the adults of the family are most likely to be watching television, are the optimal time for airing commercials for cars, electronic equipment and health and beauty products.  Sports programming offers the opportunity to advertise athletic shoes and adventure destinations for vacations.

The typical commercial these days is about 30-seconds long, although there are exceptions.  Some commercials have even turned into full half-hour or longer programs of their own and those are called ‘infomercials’.

The general consensus is that TV commercials are an annoyance that has to be tolerated so that we can watch the programs we want to see.  In order to tamp down the annoyance factor, and in an effort to make the commercials more appealing and memorable, advertisers worked to make their commercials more entertaining.

Some of the most popular and entertaining commercials were produced in the 1950’s and 1960’s, and they included animated characters and catchy jingles.  Those of us who were watching television during that time period still remember some of those great old ads.

In some cases, the star of the show and the product will forever be connected in our memories.  Some of the always linked pairings include Milton Berle and Texaco, Lawrence Welk and Geritol, Captain Midnight and Ovaltine, the near-sighted Mr. Magoo and GE Light Bulbs, the Cisco Kid and Weber’s Bread, Dinah Shore and Chevrolet, Rin Tin Tin and Nabisco products, and Death Valley Days and U.S. Borax products (remember Boraxo?).

For some just seeing a character from a commercial will bring the commercial and its jingle or catchphrase instantly to mind.  A bottom-heavy bear?  “From the land of sky blue waters comes the beer refreshing – Hamm’s, the beer refreshing!”  Three little elves with funny hats?  “Snap, Crackle, Pop!” for Rice Krispies.  Tony the Tiger?  “They’re GRRRReat!” for Kellogg’s Corn Flakes.

For others, hearing a jingle will provoke an instant memory of a commercial.  “Plop plop, fizz fizz, oh what a relief it is” – that’s Alka-Seltzer.  “Like a good neighbor…..” - that’s State Farm Insurance.  “You’ll wonder where the yellow went …” – Pepsodent toothpaste.  “Sometimes I feel like a nut, sometimes I don’t” – that’s Peter Paul Mounds and Almond Joy.

The value of these old television commercials today is their ability to evoke memories of the good old days, and they also provide a glimpse of the styles and culture of the times when they were produced.

There are hundreds of these old commercials to view here at Matinee Classics.  Go take a look and see how many memories they conjure up for you!

Vintage TV Commercials...

Television Advertising: A Brief History
Radio Precedents

Although broadcasting was initially conceived as a means to sell radio sets, broadcasting and advertising have become virtually synonymous for American listeners and viewers, taken for granted as being fundamental to both the structure and function of radio and television. If one were to isolate a single event that marked the birth of commercial broadcasting in America, it would probably be the radio program emanating from station WEAF in New York City on August 28, 1922, a ten-minute advertisement for suburban apartment housing. By Christmas of that year, several major New York department stores were "renting" the airwaves for similar pitches.

This marriage of big business advertising, public entertainment and information, and mass media technology was unlike any form of communication ever devised, bringing economic, ideological, cultural, and technological forces together in an elaborate and unprecedented coalition. By the late 1920's this coalition had matured to the point where advertising agencies had taken control of the schedule, buying air time from the networks or individual stations and producing programs themselves on behalf of sponsors.

The Single-Sponsor Era

Yet there is little doubt that as a force for advertising, radio was in many ways a prelude—albeit a complex and remarkably successful one—to the eventual arrival of television. Although the Depression and then World War II stalled the newer medium's progress, when full-time telecasting began in 1948 its impact was considerable. The advertising world approached television cautiously at first, unsure whether the new medium would prove to be simply "radio with pictures" or require an entire reconsideration of selling principles. However, the rapidity with which television captured the public imagination—combined with surveys showing that brand recognition levels were higher than in radio—meant that television evolved as a genuine mass medium, providing sponsors with an unprecedented means of reaching the consumer. Thus television schedules in the 1950's were chock full of programs with titles such as Kraft Television Theater, The Colgate Comedy Hour, and Coke Time. As with radio, these programs were produced by advertising agencies for their sponsor-clients.

However, the television audience was (and remains) a paradoxical, abstract entity, not an amalgam of individuals with differing backgrounds, tastes, and interests but a huge consumer collective that could be attracted en masse and delivered, so to speak, to advertisers. Since the networks were competing for that national audience, television programming became more important to their economic success. Increasingly, the networks found themselves coveting the sponsor/ad agency programming control, and the sponsors in turn found themselves hard-pressed to underwrite increasingly costly programs.

The Triumph of the "Magazine Concept"

NBC executive Sylvester L. "Pat" Weaver advanced the networks' answer to the problem: participation advertising, dubbed the "magazine concept." Under this arrangement, advertisers purchased discrete segments of shows (typically one- or two-minute blocks) rather than entire programs. Like magazines, which featured ads for a variety of products, the participation show might carry commercials from up to four different sponsors. Similarly, just as a magazine's editorial practice was presumably divorced from its advertising content, the presence of multiple sponsors meant that no one advertiser could control the program. By Weaver's reckoning, the network would assume that responsibility.

While participation advertising met with some initial resistance on Madison Avenue, many agencies saw that it was the ideal promotional vehicle for packaged-goods companies manufacturing a cornucopia of brand names, such as Procter and Gamble with such disparate products as Tide (laundry detergent), Crest (toothpaste), and Jif (peanut butter). By 1960, the magazine concept dominated television advertising, as it has ever since. Instead of relying on audience identification with a specific show, sponsors now spread their messages across the schedule in an effort to reach as many consumers (or at least as many of those within a specified demographic) as possible. There is no denying that as an instrument of mass communication conveying information and entertainment to the general American public, as an instrument of mass merchandising and advertising for the business community, and as a source of massive profits for the networks, American commercial television is eminently successful. 

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