The Story of the Very First Tv Commercial

James Logie

How do you create a new advertising medium that’s never existed? Do you copy what comes before it, or branch out to do something new?

This was the dilemma when the new medium of television came around in the 1930s and 40s.

Advertisers didn’t know if this was a fad or something to be taken seriously.

Radio and print ruled the marketing landscape in those days, and they had advertising down to a science.

But how do you handle a visual medium? This is a look back on the early days of advertising, and it all starts with a wristwatch.

The Story of the Very First Commercial

Dunkin’ would probably be your answer to what America runs on, but it ran on something else nearly 80 years ago: Bulova.

Bulova was a watch company that goes back to 1875, and they have the distinction of being the very first commercial shown on television.

This first TV commercial happened on July 1, 1941, on WNBT station in New York. At this point, there were around 8,000 TV sets in the country, and half were in the New York area.

It only made sense to advertise in that region.

The ten-second ad took place during a Dodgers-Phillies game and it was the first time a company would advertise using sight, sound, and motion.

The Biow Company was the advertising agency that created the ad and they charged their client nine dollars: five for airtime and four more for station charges.

But this was a brand new medium, and there was no playbook on how to create an ad. How long should it be? What do you show? What do you say?

This would eventually be figured out, but it wouldn’t happen overnight.

The Slow Move to Television Marketing

It seems absurd that a visual medium wouldn't be tailor-made for marketing, but many advertisers thought TV was a fad. There’s also the issue that few people had a TV.

In 1946, just around 7,000 homes in the entire country had one. And they weren’t cheap. The average set ranged from $350 to $2000.

That seems around what you would pay today, but converted for inflation is $4,600 to $26,000. Yikes.

Two specific things happened that helped set in motion the growth of television. After the Second World War, the FCC pulled back the restrictions on making TV sets and licensing new stations.

Before that, it was seen as foolish to direct time and money to this new medium.

Television started to grow in popularity as more programming, and live sports began to be shown.

People were binge-watching TV the way we binge-watch streaming services today. Groups of people would crowd outside display windows just to watch TV test patterns.

But many advertisers didn’t think this would last.

The Birth of a New Demographic?

The first exposure most people got to TV was in bars and restaurants

Most houses couldn’t afford them, so people would get their first experience watching a TV when they went out to get a drink. They instantly loved being able to watch television--and they didn't even have to buy one.

The establishments loved this new magnet to their business, as it would keep patrons in for hours at a time.

They would consistently keep programs like boxing and baseball running as long as they could.

Advertisers of beer and cars were over the moon as they had a specific audience they could directly advertise to.

Their best customers were aged 18 and older (the nationwide 21-year-old drinking law was not established then), and this may be the origin of the coveted 18–49 age demographic.

These saloons were purely male-based territory and things like car companies could easily cater their marketing.

What Marketing Approach Do You Take?

Advertising on the radio had worked great for years, so it made sense to follow that same format.

Early TV advertisers used this same approach, which just involved reading out a script live over the air.

It didn’t instantly occur that they were using a medium with moving pictures. It was pretty much an “if it’s not broken, don’t fix it” situation.

This would change thanks to a man named Sy Frolick. Frolick was a young copywriter for the Campbell-Ewald Company and was stunned to see his bosses using the TV commercial time to just read from a script.

Marketers would rather work on magazine ad spreads, as that’s where the money was, not television.

Frolick would often tag along to the productions and when a superior ended up quitting, found himself in charge of all television advertising.

Frolick taught himself the business as he went, and one of the first big impacts he made was with Keds shoes.

When advertising a pair of Keds, the message behind the ad was that they were washable. Frolick immediately thought they should demonstrate that instead of just saying it.

Live on the air, they washed a pair of the sneakers while a group of cheerleaders recited a Keds-based cheer.

Frolick also thought it wouldn’t hurt to cast good-looking cheerleaders…

A Failure to Evolve

Many advertisers would just refuse to demonstrate a product. It goes back to the radio and being stuck in a rigid understanding of how marketing should be.

This failure to evolve is what would end the careers of many marketers and agencies.

Sy Frolick’s demonstration work with Keds helped to push the medium forward, and advertisers in competitive categories knew that a solid demonstration would set them apart from the competition.

Fail to effectively demonstrate your product, and it could be game over. But If you could demonstrate even a tiny difference in your product, it would make sales soar off the sales graph.

One of the best examples of this is the Remington shaver peach test in 1954.

They shaved a peach with a Remington shaver, leaving the peach completely unscathed, giving way to their phrase: “Shaves close enough to shave a peach.”

Another demonstration would also lead to one of the greatest slogans in marketing history.

Starting in 1948, Timex would put their watches through several live torture tests only to show it come out the other end still functioning, leading to the iconic: “Timex takes a licking and keeps on ticking.”

This is why there was so much pressure to properly demonstrate a product live on the air, and bad performances often ended in tears and firings.

Lights, Camera, Action!

We tend to just associate live TV with sports, or award shows, but in the early days of TV; it was all live, including the commercials.

There was no concept of doing anything pre-recorded, and the technology wasn’t even there to properly do that yet.

Commercials were a stressful time as everything had to be just right. They would involve doing endless rehearsals, and performers would pace around stressed out as they waited to go on.

Actors had trouble with this new medium as since it was live, they had to follow the exact pace. A 60-second ad had to be 60-seconds on the dot.

Broadway and film actors struggled to adapt to this tight pace, but radio performers had no problem as they had been doing live commercials for years.

The problem now is that if you weren’t “visually appealing,” you could easily get weeded out, and it’s probably where the “you've got a face for radio” phrase was born.

Eventually, advertising was being taken seriously and in 1948, nearly 1000 advertisers bought television time, five times more than in 1947.

The Importance of the Unique Selling Proposition

As things moved into the 60s and 70s, the 60-second spot was not as common, and live commercials were long gone.

30-second spots were the name of the game as advertisers could make more money by selling more spots if they were half the time.

With so much competition out there, it wasn't enough to even demonstrate the product anymore. You had to stand out, even if that meant people hating your ad.

Rosser Reeves embraced this novel concept better than anyone. He didn’t care about style or artistry, he only cared about persuasion.

He would dub this novel approach the “Unique Selling Proposition” or U.S.P.

The idea was to describe a product so that consumers felt like they had never heard of it before. Competitors couldn’t copy your description as it would then look like they were copying you.

From there, you would just continue to hammer this message out to the public so it drove the message into their head.

They could hate it, that was irrelevant, but they would understand the message, and they wouldn’t forget it.

Effectively Using This New Idea

An example of this was with the Anacin pain reliever in the early 60s. The commercials would feature hammers and lighting while promoting “Fast… Fast… FAST RELIEF!”

Most people hated it, as did the competitors, but sales of Anacin tripled in less than two years after these ads.

Reeves conveyed that even a weak commercial, repeatedly driven into your head, would do better than a strong one that had a limited showing.

You’ve seen this work of Reeves demonstrated with M&Ms: “They melt in your mouth, not in your hand.”

When you actually look at it, that slogan is somewhat of a senseless statement, but you’ve heard it enough times that you don’t question it, and everyone knows it.

Ultimately, you can probably think of commercials you hate, but you didn’t forget them, and that’s U.S.P. working.

Wrapping it Up

The history of television advertising could take years to cover, but this is a quick look back on its development.

It’s amazing to see how things evolved from that ten-second Bulova ad nearly 80 years ago to what it’s become today.

The early advertisers had to navigate this new medium with what they knew from radio, but apply it to a visual format.

Many could not successfully adapt as they were stuck in the past.

But the early pioneers carved out a new industry, despite having to make it up as they went along.

Even though they were just trying to survive, those early television marketers ended up changing the world of advertising forever.

Photo by Austrian National Library on Unsplash

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Personal trainer, podcaster, Amazon best-selling author. Writing about some health, a little marketing, and a whole lot of 1980s.


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