It's not every day that someone makes an amazing show about marketing. That's why it's bittersweet for us to see "Mad Men" come to an end. To celebrate the final season of a show that's made its mark on us and marketers around the world, on each Thursday we'll be releasing a retro-style Adobe Marketing Cloud ad with #AdThrowback. We hope other brands will join us. Thank you, Don, Peggy and everyone else. We're sorry we never got a chance to measure and optimize your campaigns.
It's the mid-1950s, the Golden Age of television and a pivotal moment in modern mass communications—the time when Americans' love affair with screens begins. If they don't have a "home screen" by mid-decade, they likely will within a few years: By 1960, nearly 90% of households have a TV. Behind the scenes, advertisers and networks battle for control of these consumers' hearts, minds and wallets, but by decade's end an enduring business model emerges.
There's money to be made: Americans are enjoying relative prosperity, and they're pursuing the comfort and convenience it affords, buying suburban homes, automobiles, appliances and cigarettes. They have more leisure time than ever before, and they're spending it in front of the tube. They watch popular Big 3 network sitcoms such as "I Love Lucy," variety and drama shows such as "Texaco Star Theater," quiz shows including "You Bet Your Life" and, late in the decade, westerns such as "Gunsmoke," "Wagon Train" and "Have Gun—Will Travel." These programs provide captive, valuable audiences, and advertisers know it.
Riding this wave is TV advertising—which not only helps people buy new items, but also convinces them to purchase products they don't need. For example, General Motors Corp., which had introduced the concept of planned obsolescence in the 1920s, now spawns the idea of dynamic obsolescence—consumers are encouraged to replace their cars annually simply to make sure they remain in style. In their efforts to encourage consumers to buy and replenish products that aren't necessities, advertisers and agencies in the late 1950s begin to rely on techniques such as demographic targeting—a forerunner to the era of Big Data.
For most of the decade, viewers see shows that are sponsored by single advertisers and produced by agencies—such as "The Hallmark Hall of Fame," "The Colgate Comedy Hour" and "Kraft Television Theatre"—but the business of TV is rapidly changing. NBC's Sylvester L. "Pat" Weaver is the first proponent of using a "magazine format" for TV, selling 60-second commercials in NBC-produced shows instead of running 30-minute blocks of time that the advertiser controls. In 1955, 75 network programs are each underwritten by a single advertiser; by fall 1960, only 31 are (and by 1965, that's dropped to 12).
While advertisers have already rushed to reach TV audiences—ad spending jumps to $1 billion in 1955 from $128 million in 1951—the last half of the decade brings important tech advances that expand TV's influence. Pre-recorded programming becomes more widely available, and in 1957, NBC Television's "Truth or Consequences" becomes the first program to be broadcast in all time zones from a prerecorded videotape. Meanwhile, agencies such as J. Walter Thompson Co. launch in-house studios to produce color TV commercials.
If the TV's on, viewers are likely to see a car commercial. By the mid-1950s, nearly all American families own at least one car (up from 59% at the beginning of the decade), and automobiles are the top category in ad spending, passing packaged goods and cigarettes. The carmakers roll out some of the era's most memorable spots, including Dinah Shore singing "See the USA in Your Chevrolet," created by Campbell-Ewald.
Across ad categories, viewers absorb the "Unique Selling Proposition," a concept pioneered by Ted Bates & Co. Chairman Rosser Reeves and typified in the agency's "Fast, fast, fast relief" campaign for Anacin pain reliever and "Melts in your mouth, not in your hands" for M&M candies. Many advertisers use TV product demonstrations to differentiate their brands and show their USP in action. Band-Aid bandages stay affixed to an egg boiling in water; Remington razors shave the fuzz off a peach; Timex watches take a licking and keep on ticking.
Yet the advertiser-consumer relationship is becoming strained as the Cold War continues and conspiracy theories abound. In 1957, Vance Packard releases a best-selling exposé, "The Hidden Persuaders," about advertisers' use of motivational research, an increasingly popular tool among agencies that helps identify—and tap into—consumers' hidden desires for security, sex, social acceptance, style, luxury and success.
Audience trust also suffers a big blow with the quiz show scandals. Consumers learn that Revlon, sponsor of "The $64,000 Question," allows corporate heads to choose the games' winners and losers. The nation also is shocked when it learns that Charles Van Doren, a contestant on game show "Twenty One," had been given answers to the questions in advance. After congressional hearings, networks take control of their broadcasts by 1959.
The 1950s may epitomize the comfort and conformity of the American dream, but by the end of the decade, discontent is brewing. As they often do, rapid shifts in technology, society and business are setting the stage for sweeping change: the cultural and creative revolution of the 1960s.
(Next week: The 1960s)
About the Sponsor
Adobe is changing the world through digital experiences. Adobe Creative Cloud and Adobe Marketing Cloud empower businesses to make, manage, measure and monetize content. At Vanity Fair, Martha Stewart Living and other leading publications, our creative software is used to develop compelling, interactive content delivered in print, online and on tablets. Industry leaders such as Lenovo, U.S. Bank and Caesars Entertainment are turning to Adobe Marketing Cloud to maximize their sales in a cross-channel, multiscreen world.