Inventing the Commercial: The Imperium of Modern Television Advertising Was Born in Desperate Improvisation

By Matthei, Harry | American Heritage, May-June 1997 | Go to article overview

Inventing the Commercial: The Imperium of Modern Television Advertising Was Born in Desperate Improvisation


Matthei, Harry, American Heritage


It was 1945, and everybody needed everything. If you knew how to build a car, a house, or a washing machine, you could sell it faster than you could make it. Car dealers, including fine old names that soon would be history--Hudson, Nash, Packard, and Studebaker--all had long waiting lists. Many dealers bluntly quoted not the price of the car but the price of getting on their waiting lists.

In 1945 I had barely heard of either television or the advertising business, and I had no idea what a boom was, even though I was smack in the middle of one. I was thirteen years old, just out of grade school, and my goal was to become an engineer. Instead I spent forty-six years in advertising, mostly as a TV copywriter, later as a writer-producer and agency owner. While it wasn't always fun, it certainly was never dull.

In 1945 on New York's Madison Avenue--Main Street for America's advertising agencies--business had never been better. Freed of wartime paper restrictions, the big general-interest magazines--Life, Look, The Saturday Evening Post, and Collier's-swelled with advertisements. So did the major women's magazines: Good Housekeeping, McCall's, and Ladies' Home Journal. Fifteen percent of the placement cost of every ad went straight into the advertising agencies' pockets.

Of course, every city of any size in 1945 had at least two newspapers: morning and evening. Big cities had three or four of each, plus the foreign language press, and every one of them was stuffed with advertising. Americans once again could buy cigarettes, film, shoes, steaks, nylon stockings, tires, and everything else missing from their lives since December 7, 1941.

Into this giddy, superheated economy, commercial television was born. Again.

Television broadcasting had been launched in the United States in 1928 by the General Electric Company, in Schenectady, New York. The station--today's WRGB, Channel 6--had been licensed to broadcast "experimental" television only. Commercials were expressly forbidden.

According to Advertising Age, the industry's trade weekly, the first "legal" television commercial was aired on WNBT, the NBC station in New York, on July 1, 1941, during a Dodgers-Phillies game at Brooklyn's Ebbets Field. The camera focused on a Bulova watch with the second hand ticking as the announcer read the correct time. Bulova time checks ("It's three o'clock, Bulova watch time") were already fixtures in radio advertising; Bulova simply adapted them to TV. For the first time in all of advertising, Bulova was able to combine the stimuli of sight, sound, and motion via television.

Bulova's agency, the Biow Company, billed its client nine dollars: five for airtime and four more for "station charges." Fifteen percent of this ($1.35), we can assume, was profit to the Biow Company as its standard advertising-agency commission. There were then about four thousand TV sets in the New York City area, roughly half of all the sets in the country.

"Illegal" commercials, Advertising Age noted, had appeared as early as 1930, when all TV licenses were strictly "experimental" i.e., noncommercial. On July 1, 1939, General Mills, Procter & Gamble, and Socony Oil (now Mobil), all sponsors of Brooklyn Dodgers' radio coverage, were given free plugs by Red Barber. the Dodgers' announcer, during the first televised major-league baseball game. Red sliced bananas into a bowl of Wheaties, held up a bar of soap, and donned a gas-station attendant's cap. He thereby became the father of the demonstration commercial. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) apparently missed this debut. Earlier violators of the noncommercial rule had drawn fines and threats of license suspension, but Red got off scot-free.

During the war years commercial television went on hold. The government halted the manufacture of new sets and transmission equipment and stopped issuing station licenses. Established stations provided regular programming, but only a handful of people were equipped to watch it.

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