Flashback Friday: TV's First Commercial Ran 75 Years Ago Today

Bulova Was First Brand To Air a (Legal) Commercial

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"Evidence is mounting that [TV] will gain little headway for 'the duration,'" Ad Age wrote in June 1941 following the FCC's approval of commercial TV.

The next month, on July 1, Bulova aired what's considered the first TV commercial. The grainy, shaky, 10-second spot ran during an afternoon Dodgers-Phillies game on NBC-owned WNBT. There's a simple outline of the then-48 states splashed with the face of a Bulova watch. A voiceover from pioneering announcer Ray Forrest (re-enacted in the version above) says: "America runs on Bulova."

The commercial cost Bulova about $4 and at best was seen by just a few thousand people who owned a TV set in the New York market where it aired.

Three days later Adams Hats aired the first live commercial. Procter & Gamble, British manufacturing company Lever Bros. and Sun Oil Company (now Sunoco) also ran early commercials.

There had been previous commercial experiments. NBC ran a test commercial for Procter & Gamble, Socony Oil (now Mobil) and General Mills during a Dodgers game two years earlier. In it, announcer Red Barber highlighted the companies by wearing a gas station attendant's cap, holding a bar of soap and slicing a banana into a bowl of Wheaties. Since the three companies were radio sponsors of the Dodgers, the commercial was seen as a bonus to their radio buys, so NBC was able to evade FCC fines.

But today marks the 75th anniversary of that first commercial from Bulova, the dawn of what would become a $70 billion marketplace. As we debate the future of the 30-second spot and lament on its declining relevance, the anniversary is not only a reminder of just how much has changed but also how familiar the current cycle of innovation actually is.

TV went through many of the same growing pains we are currently witnessing with social media, digital video and over-the-top services.

According the very first rate card issued by NBC for WNBT, a commercial cost $4 in the afternoon and $8 in the evening. Sponsors of quarter-hour periods paid about $100 for time and studio costs.

In the decade following the Federal Communications Commissions ruling, which allowed networks to charge marketers for commercial time, radio still remained the dominant advertising vehicle. TV represented just $12.3 million in ad spend in 1951 compared to radio's $210 million.

There was plenty of skepticism surrounding the viability of TV commercials. Speaking at a meeting of the American Television Society in September 1941, Myron Zobel, president of Telecast Productions, discussed the difficulties in selling TV shows to advertisers and agencies "due to the lack of certified figures on the distribution of television sets and types of owners," Ad Age reported. He urged greater cooperation from TV stations in gathering and distributing this data.

TV production essentially halted during World War II as a ramp-up in defense manufacturing left TV makers without materials or facilities.

It wasn't until around 1946 that marketers began "spending important money." According to an Ad Age article from October of that year, R.M. Gray, manager of advertising and sales promotion for the Standard Oil Company of New York, said the company was in TV for four reasons: "Technology experience…to gain knowledge of showmanship in this medium…(because of) an obligation we believe most advertisers feel toward any new medium…(and) to gain knowledge of the best program times to suit our individual problems.

By this time, marketers had learned that commercials should be short -- "one and a half minutes on our 10-minute show was about right," Mr. Gray had said. They also discovered that filmed commercials were preferable to live spots, that ads could be repeated several times, and that "entertainment adds to the palatability" of commercials.

Confidence in TV grew and by 1949 many agencies had formed TV departments, though most of these operated as part of their radio divisions.

Ad Age published its first TV-centric issue with the tagline: "Television -- Infant Advertising Medium -- Where It Stands" in January 1949, dedicating 38 pages to "the miracle -- and the problem -- of television."

Most advertising on TV during this time involved marketers sponsoring and producing the programming. It wasn't until the 1960s that commercial breaks more closely resembled what they are today. As the cost of programming skyrocketed, marketers could no longer afford to produce shows themselves and turned instead to buying commercial slots in network-supplied programming.

TV went on to become the bread-and-butter for many major marketers. For several decades, it provided reliable reach and commanded the lion's share of ad dollars. And for most of the time since commercial TV's birth, the way ad inventory has been bought and sold hasn't changed considerably.

But a quarter of a century later, the viability of the TV ad model is once again being questioned. Viewers can now skip over commercials or choose to watch content on platforms where there aren't any. There's more content available than ever before on a variety of platforms and devices other than the traditional TV set, which has led to viewer fragmentation.

In turn, marketers have looked elsewhere to recapture audiences, especially younger viewers who are turning to social media channels as their source of entertainment.

To keep pace, the industry is leaning in to technology, allowing marketers to target viewers using more sophisticated data, while at the same time returning to its roots by creating content in conjunction with brands.

However familiar the cycle of change, more has changed in the last 10 years than in the 60 before them. It's almost certain that 75 years from now, TV commercials won't bear much of a resemblance to their current form.

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