In fact, I remember TV commercials from the early days of TV far more vividly than I do most current versions of the art form. One reason, of course, is that there weren't as many to remember in the old days. Another is that many today aren't worth remembering.
Whatever memories of TV commercials you have, I hope you'll enjoy reading this special issue of Advertising Age. As you can see from our table of contents, we're taking an extremely comprehensive look at TV commercials from 1945 until now.
We freely acknowledge, by the way, that 1945 doesn't mark the airing of the very first commercial. The first TV commercials actually ran in 1940, the same year sponsored TV became a reality.
As the editor of this issue, Adrienne Fawcett, notes, those pre-World War II commercials were rudimentary and seen by only a small number of viewers. At that time, only 5,000 or so receivers were in operation in metropolitan New York, with an estimated five people watching per set. With the war came restrictions that slowed the development of commercial TV.
It was not until September 1944 that the first successful long-lasting network TV program premiered: "The Gillette Cavalcade of Sports"-"Look sharp, feel sharp, be sharp. Use Gillette Blue Blades for the sharpest edges ever honed." The Gillette boxing matches were part of an abbreviated 1944-45 TV season.
We picked 1945 as the "ground floor" for this revolutionary advertising medium because it was the year that marked the end of World War II; the year in which the Federal Communications Commission approved commercial TV; the year Sears, Roebuck & Co. started selling TV sets, attracting large crowds on the sidewalks to watch through storefront windows.
Also in 1945, many major marketers started taking TV commercials seriously. Lever Bros. signed on for four half-hour shows produced on CBS-TV station WCBW in New York. Among the national product marketers that jumped into TV advertising were Bulova, Botany, Pan Am, Firestone, RCA and Esso.
In that year, a VP of Campbell-Ewald issued the same clarion call for TV advertising that the head of Procter & Gamble has now sounded for the new interactive media. Said the Campbell-Ewald exec in 1945: "There are plenty of opportunities for those who wish to get in on the ground floor and become familiar with the potentialities of audio-visual advertising."
Over the years, the power of TV advertising has waxed and waned, the latter particularly as the big package-goods advertisers have let languish their hard-won brand franchises-built, often times, through consistent TV advertising. H.J. Heinz Co., for one, banished Charlie the Tuna and Morris the Cat to the TV graveyard while it tried to entice consumers to buy its brands of tuna and cat food with cents-off coupons and other inducements.
This strategy helps turn great brands into commodities, making them even more vulnerable to private-label products. Come to think of it, it's been a long time since I've seen the Jolly Green Giant ho-ho-hoing for his frozen peas and corn.
Recently, however, TV advertising has made a remarkable comeback, fueled by high-tech, new-to-TV brands such as Intel and Microsoft. And the seemingly tired old business of network TV has suddenly become the darling of Madison Avenue, thanks to Rupert Murdoch's dramatic raid on CBS-TV affiliates in behalf of his Fox network.
Yes, we've come a long way since the merry Texaco men "wiped the pipe and pumped the gas and rubbed the hub and touched the clutch and blocked the knock." From the start, TV commercials have sometimes entertained us, informed us, even inspired us. But what they have always done is build brands, and I'm glad to see that basic fact is being rediscovered 50 years after it all began.
Editor in chief