- Historic Sites
Inventing The Commercial
THE IMPERIUM OF modern television advertising was born in desperate improvisation
May/june 1997 | Volume 48, Issue 3
By the late forties television sets were beginning to appear in more and more American living rooms. And during commercial television’s first postwar decade, no matter what was televised, people watched. Roller derbies. Wrestling. Harness racing. Vaudeville. Amateur shows. The very worst B movies. Like it or not, the new medium seemed to mesmerize people—both sexes and all ages, urban, suburban, and eventually rural. Indeed, viewers couldn’t tear themselves away even to eat. Housewives were torn between watching television and cooking dinner. Then along came frozen TV dinners. In many households dinnertime—the nightly ritual with everyone gathered at the table—simply faded away. America preferred to watch TV.
Some advertisers and their agencies dismissed our compulsive viewing habit as little more than a fad. TV equaled free movies. Once the novelty wore off, the whole medium might just dry up and blow away. But more thoughtful and prescient advertising people recognized television as the natural successor to radio. Far more attention getting and involving and harder-selling, it was radio with teeth.
Radio didn’t demand the listener’s undivided attention; kids did homework, moms sewed, and dads painted the kitchen to its background babble and steady throb of commercials. Television, by contrast, caught the eye as well as the ear. It seemed to insist, “Look here! Pay attention! Watch this!” Advertisers and their agencies soon realized that TV audiences did pay attention. Products hawked on the tube seemed to sell faster than non-TV brands.
Some of these sales reflected the makeup of the audience. Viewers tended to be more sophisticated and prosperous than average. They all lived in major cities. They were more likely to experiment with new, untried products. What’s more—and this is still true—retailers were favorably impressed by the brands advertised on television. With buyers and sellers alike so willing to be wooed, television advertising began flexing its muscles.
Live television today usually means news, sports, and special events. But from 1945 to 1950 all television was “live,” including most commercials. There were no other options, except for showing motion pictures or kinescopes—poor-quality films made by shooting specially synchronized movies of television images.
Local sponsors and stations usually couldn’t afford film, and videotape wasn’t available until 1956. So for a few years every night was amateur night. (Daytime TV was almost nonexistent until the 1950s.) Live television was a grab bag of minor-league talent mingled with promising unknowns and recycled radio announcers. The latter were there to open and close the programs and deliver commercials in a suitably dignified manner.
Each performance was, for better or worse, unique and then gone. This ephemeral, spontaneous quality made live television both challenging to produce and fun to watch. For viewers it seemed personal, almost participatory. Audience and performers, together, were partners in an intriguing experiment. And neither was sure what would happen next. For those of us who wrote, directed, and produced live television, it’s fair to say we made it up as we went along. We really did. Without quite realizing it, we virtually invented an advertising, news, entertainment, and information medium.
Frolick was stunned. “Here we were on television, with moving pictures, and we were doing radio commercials!”
One of the earliest of television’s trailblazers was Sy Frolick. Discharged from the U.S. Coast Guard in 1946 and just married, Frolick set out to become an advertising copywriter. In March 1946 he took a job on trial for thirty days writing radio commercials at the Campbell-Ewald Company, in New York. This later became the Fletcher D. Richards agency, then Richards, Calkins & Holden. Frolick’s thirty-day trial lasted nearly twenty years, during which he rose to the head of television production and earned awards for his commercials almost every year. In the sixties he joined the William Esty advertising agency. He retired almost twenty years later.
“Every Tuesday night,” Sy remembers, “my boss, a senior copywriter named Scotty Kosting, would go down to the old John Wanamaker department store on lower Broadway to produce a TV show with live commercials for our client, the U.S. Rubber Company. We got a free half-hour every week from WABD, Channel 13, New York [then, as no longer, a commercial channel], just to help fill empty airtime. That would be prime time today. In '46 they were giving it away.”
The agency had created a science program using Encyclopaedia Britannica films, called “Serving Through Science,” which was U.S. Rubber’s corporate slogan. The company’s U.S. Royal tires and Keds sneakers were promoted on the show. Sy’s boss, Scotty, hated this weekly TV assignment. It wiped out every Tuesday night for him. Like most senior copywriters in 1946, Scotty yearned to write big full-color spreads for Life, Look, and The Saturday Evening Post. That was where the money was.