1950s TV Turns on America

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Population: 151.3 million (1950), 179.3 million (1960)

Employment: 58.3% employment (1950), 58.1% employment (1960)

Presidents: Harry S. Truman (1945-1953), Dwight D. Eisenhower (1953-1961)

Big names in advertising:

Joyce Hall, Hallmark Cards; Leo Burnett, Leo Burnett Co.; George Gallup, Gallup & Robinson; William Paley, CBS; Shirley Polykoff, Foote, Cone & Belding; Rosser Reeves, Ted Bates & Co.

Top agency in 1950: J. Walter Thompson Co. ($130 million in worldwide billings)

Total U.S. ad spending in 1950: $5.7 billion

The 1950s saw the Cold War extend and was a tense decade for the American people as schoolchildren prepared for nuclear war by being told to "Duck and cover." At the same time, prosperity reigned, salaries and disposable income were on the rise, U.S. consumers generally felt optimistic about the future, and people were ready to spend. (They had the opportunity to do so on credit for the first time, since Bank of America introduced the credit card in 1958.) The American public also made its first big move toward the suburbs. By the mid-1950s, subdivisions-like the first, Long Island's Levittown, which opened in 1947 with TV- and washing machine-equipped homes priced from $8,000 to $10,000-accounted for 75% of all new home starts. The demand was strong for appliances and other consumer goods that saved labor and increased leisure time-with the auto giving each household the freedom to explore.


Total U.S. billings more than doubled during the 1950s, from $5.7 billion in 1950 to $12 billion in 1960. The number of agencies proliferated as well, mainly due to the growth of TV. The first three years of the decade continued the "catching up" period that started after World War II ended in 1945. In the early 1950s, Rosser Reeves came up with the concept of the Unique Selling Proposition, typified by his "Fast, fast, fast relief" campaign for Anacin pain reliever and "Melts in your mouth, not in your hands" for M&M's candies. Many advertisers began to rely on TV product demonstrations to differentiate their brands and show their USP in action. Band-Aid bandages stayed affixed to an egg in boiling water; Remington razors shaved the fuzz off a peach; Timex watches took a licking and kept on ticking.

After 1953, supply caught up with demand and consumers had purchased the necessities of life. To drive demand forward, marketers began to offer continuously updated products, creating a period of "consumption anxiety." General Motors Corp., which had introduced the concept of planned obsolescence in the 1920s, spawned the idea of dynamic obsolescence. Consumers were encouraged to replace their cars annually, simply to make sure they remained in style. The 1950s marked the rise of the family car; at the beginning of the decade, only 59% of American households had an automobile, but by the mid-1950s nearly all owned at least one, and cars became the top category in ad spending, passing package-goods and cigarettes. America made the Chevrolet the No. 1 nameplate on the new interstate highway system after Dinah Shore sang "See the USA in Your Chevrolet" in commercials by Campbell-Ewald.

In their quest to encourage consumers to buy and replenish products that weren't necessities, advertisers and agencies in the late 1950s began to rely on techniques such as motivational research and demographic targeting. This led to the creation of popular aspirational advertising icons such as the Man in the Hathaway Shirt (Hewitt, Ogilvy, Benson & Mather, 1951) and the Marlboro Man (Leo Burnett, 1954). Alka-Seltzer ended up in millions of household medicine cabinets as the "Stop-motion" Speedy Alka-Seltzer character offered "Fast, fast relief" and Timex picked up where Bulova left off with a 20-year run as newsman/presenter John Cameron Swayze described the Acapulco cliff diver being jostled by waves and yet the Timex watch "Takes a licking and keeps on ticking."

Other concepts from the 1950s included "exposure," first identified as a readership measurement in an Advertising Research Foundation-sponsored Reader's Digest/Alfred Politz study in 1956; "subliminal advertising," a controversial concept during the Cold War; and the "creative team" approach, which paired an art director and a copywriter, popularized by Doyle Dane Bernbach in its "Think Small" campaign for Volkswagen. Children became a target market for advertising; teenagers, who came into their own as a separate demographic segment, saw ads for records and phonographs, radios, magazines, soft drinks and apparel developed just for them.

New media

TV quickly became the leading ad medium, with spending growing more than tenfold from $12.3 million in 1949 to $128 million in 1951, and nearly another tenfold to $1 billion in 1955. In 1951, microwave transmitters enabled coast-to-coast broadcasts of live network programming, and in 1956 video recording made it possible to air prerecorded commercials. By 1957, Americans were able to watch 450 stations across the U.S. on 37 million TV sets; by 1960, nearly 90% of households had a TV. Betty Furness became the first TV advertising celebrity during her 11-year tenure as spokeswoman for Westinghouse appliances, starting in 1949. Sales of Hazel Bishop lipsticks rose from $50,000 a year in 1950 to $4.5 million in 1952, thanks to TV exposure.

The system of advertiser-sponsored and agency-produced programming continued through most of the 1950s, typified by shows such as "The Hallmark Hall of Fame," "The Colgate Comedy Hour" and "Kraft Television Theater." NBC's Sylvester L. "Pat" Weaver was the first proponent of using a "magazine format" for TV, selling 60-second commercials in NBC-produced shows instead of 30-minute blocks of time that the advertiser controlled. When the quiz show scandals made news in the late 1950s, and consumers discovered that sponsors were dictating the winners and losers on shows such as "The $64,000 Question" and "Twenty-One," the demise of advertiser-sponsored programming was sealed.

As TV became the primary ad medium, network radio and print publications lost ground. Lucille Ball, Milton Berle, Jackie Gleason, Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca became TV stars, and drew ad dollars to their shows. But individual radio stations, as well as newspapers and magazines, continued to be important outlets for local advertising. Print periodicals benefited from a new and important category, television sets. FM radio began to emerge, with Top 40 one of the first successful formats, but the genre's reputation was harmed in the late 1950s-around the same time as TV's quiz show scandals-due to a "payola" investigation that found DJs were taking money from record labels to play certain songs.

Everyday life

Americans' new suburban lifestyle led to the rise of big supermarkets and malls-the first enclosed mall opened near Minneapolis in 1956-outside the urban centers. The wave of mall openings was the beginning of the end for numerous town centers. The supermarkets launched trading stamps during this decade, and 75% of stores offered them by the 1960s, though the trend was over by the 1970s. Brands stressed convenience and enhanced leisure time; Swanson's TV dinners were easy to fix and allowed families to watch their new TVs while they ate. Disneyland opened in 1955, boosting U.S. family travel and tourism.

TV was an important leisure activity, of course. Families gathered to watch the first popular sitcoms (such as "I Love Lucy"), variety and drama shows ("Texaco Star Theatre"), quiz shows ("You Bet Your Life"), and late in the decade, westerns ("Gunsmoke," "Wagon Train," "Have Gun-Will Travel"). Studios released many acclaimed films, from "An American in Paris" to "Rebel Without a Cause." But TV threatened the movie business, and studios and theaters tried to attract crowds by introducing novelty technologies such as 3D, stereoscope and Cinemascope. While moviegoers continued to buy tickets to watch actors such as Marlon Brando ("A Streetcar Named Desire," "On the Waterfront") and Charlton Heston ("The Ten Commandments," "Ben-Hur"), movies lost ground.

Readers in the 1950s enjoyed the works of Herman Wouk, James Jones, James Michener, Frank Yerby and Norman Vincent Peale. Russian novelists Boris Pasternak and Vladimir Nabokov also made a mark on the best-seller lists. In music, the sorts of crooners who had success in the 1940s remained favorites in the early 1950s, with Patti Page, Nat King Cole, Tony Bennett and Rosemary Clooney topping the charts. But by the mid-1950s, these artists began to give way to rock 'n' roll acts such as Bill Haley and the Comets, Fats Domino and, of course, the King, Elvis Presley.

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