Inventing The Commercial

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The major advertising agencies—the “hucksters” that had turned network radio into a money machine—saw the new medium as a natural outgrowth of the older, better-established one. The admen ruled radio as they never could newspapers or magazines, controlling the editorial content. Companies like Procter & Gamble, Ford, and General Foods paid advertising agencies to create and produce—or buy from independent producers—hours of network radio programs every day. The broadcasters functioned only as an electronic pipeline. They generally accepted whatever programming the advertisers chose.

Filling the pipe usually began with an independent producer or talent agent proposing a program to an agency. This might be anything from a soap opera to a quiz show. The agency would then sell the idea to one of its clients and negotiate a time slot with a network. The network in turn would offer the show to local affiliate stations, which simply took the network feed via AT&T lines and broadcast it within their areas. The only locally produced radio programming usually was local news, farm and market reports, and fillers for dead times like Sunday mornings, when the audiences were too tiny to attract big advertisers.

With the coming of television the agencies and their clients assumed that the new medium simply would be radio with pictures, commercials included. The agencies would develop the programs, the TV stations would air them, advertising dollars would pay the bills, and everyone would make money. What could be simpler?

Still, from a 1940s advertising viewpoint, television was a feeble medium. It had neither the scope nor the prestige of the big national magazines. It lacked the stars of radio—Jack Benny, Fibber McGee, Bob Hope. It was just radio’s baby brother. In 1946 the four radio networks—“webs,” they were called—reached more than 90 percent of the homes in the forty-eight states plus about half the cars. By contrast the only television network linked just three cities: Philadelphia, New York, and Schenectady. Period.

As Fred Allen, one of radio’s most popular wits—and one of TV’s bitterest critics—put it, “In television, coast-to-coast means from here to Passaic.” He was in Manhattan at the time; Passaic is barely ten miles away on the opposite side of the Hudson River. All through the forties television continued to be a local medium. As with today’s Internet and on-line services, nobody could be sure how fast it would grow, what it could offer, or how advertising agencies could make money from it. In fact, it would be 1948 before a million homes had TV sets and 1951 before coast-to-coast television networks existed. Except for a few major cities, most of the U.S. heartland would have no TV at all until the mid-fifties or later.

George Pryde, a Connecticut advertising man born in Wyoming, remembers his grandparents taking him to visit friends in the little town of Ranchester, a few miles from Sheridan, in 1949. He was ten years old. At one especially nice house, he recalls, “the people seemed pretty welloff. In their living room was a new wooden cabinet like a big radio, with an opaque glass window in the front of it. I asked what it was, because I had no idea. Our host said, ‘That’s a television set.’ And he seemed really pleased with himself. It didn’t impress me much because I’d never even heard of television, and the screen was blank.” It would be at least five more years before television reached Ranchester, Wyoming.

In the middle of 1946 there were fewer than ten thousand sets in the entire country, half of them still in New York City. This was the age of vacuum tubes and hand-soldered wiring, not printed circuits and transistors, so the sets were not easy to massproduce. Neither were they cheap. Prices ranged from $350 to $2,000, at a time when a typical family could live nicely on $10,000 a year.

Most major advertising agencies weren’t eager to shift dollars out of high-profit, measurable network radio and mass magazines into this highly questionable and uncharted frontier. So the new medium grew slowly through the forties. Even during the early fifties you’d be more likely to find a TV set in a neighborhood bar than in a living room.

Saloonkeepers loved the tube. A televised baseball game or boxing match would pack in the customers and hold them spellbound for hours. In fact, until the sixties, most men probably saw their first TV program in a bar. For advertisers of cigarettes, beer, cars, and the Gillette Safety Razor Company, this was the medium of their dreams. Their best customers were males over eighteen, and saloons and sports were more purely male territory in the fifties than today.

In June 1946 Gillette and NBC staged the first televised sports spectacular: the Joe Louis—Billy Conn heavyweight championship bout at Yankee Stadium in New York. Louis won. So did Gillette. For the first time the blade maker was able to demonstrate its products to a TV audience estimated at 150,000 fans in New York City, plus bonus viewers in Schenectady and Philadelphia. The next year Gillette joined with Ford to televise the first game of the 1947 World Series. Over the following decades, Gillette’s “Look Sharp, Be Sharp” march music, its jingle, “How’re you fixed for blades? (Do you have plenty?),” and “Sharpie,” its animated parrot, became three of television’s best-known and longest-lived commercial properties.