Inventing The Commercial
THE IMPERIUM OF modern television advertising was born in desperate improvisation
May/june 1997 | Volume 48, Issue 3
Julia Meade, a young actress fresh from the Yale University Drama School, remembers working in the tiny, cramped Wanamaker’s studio that Sy Frolick used, though the two never met. She would later become the spokesperson for Lincoln and Mercury cars on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” as well as for the American Gas Association on “Playhouse 90” and for other sponsors on other shows. She began her television career, which spanned more than thirty years, as a model on a local New York show called “Fashion Parade.” Recently she recalled, “The lights in that studio were so hot I was always wringing wet within minutes. My makeup was always running off my face. On one occasion I had my hair pinned up with plastic combs. When I came out of the studio, the lights had melted the combs into my hair. When I finally disentangled them, they’d shriveled into hairy, weird-looking plastic claws. I guess I was lucky I wasn’t bald.”
TV cameras in the 1940s needed a great deal of light, but TV lighting didn’t yet include cool-burning fluorescent tubes, so studio heat was a constant problem. It not only baked the actors but exploded beer bottles, liquefied candles, blistered paint, and made some props too hot to touch, as scorched actors learned firsthand. One producer remembers that his lights once melted the glue bonding the wood veneer to a grand piano. The veneer buckled and peeled off in huge, sticky sheets. The owners of the piano were not amused.
Of course, faster, more sensitive cameras and cooler, brighter lights were on the way, along with more efficient air conditioning. And in 1947 Dr. Frank G. Back invented the revolutionary Zoomar lens. This was the first lens that allowed zooming in for a close-up and zooming out for a long shot without moving the camera or losing the focus. Cameramen and directors wondered how they had ever lived without it. A frenzy of in-and-out zoom shots followed until Dr. Back’s Zoomar became just another lens in the cameraman’s bag.
During the fall of 1948 Milton Berle burst into television with the “Texaco Star Theater.” By November he had achieved a record rating, reaching nearly 90 percent of all the TV homes in the country. That same autumn “The Ed Sullivan Show” made its debut, sponsored by Ford’s Lincoln-Mercury Division.
In 1959, in Dayton, Ohio, I nearly electrocuted a lady named Betty Rogge while she was doing a live Frigidaire demo.
George Burns and Gracie Allen, sponsored by B. F. Goodrich, abandoned radio in 1948 to be among these first stars of the new medium. By this time, Advertising Age reported, more than a hundred new TV licenses had been issued by the FCC, and at least as many more were being processed. Nearly a thousand advertisers bought television time in 1948, five times as many as the year before. For the men who ran the major advertising agencies—there were no women—it was time to take television seriously.
In 1950, coming through the back door as a messenger, I joined the biggest, most buttoned-up agency of all, the J. Walter Thompson Company. WASP-ish, decorous, Ivy League (YaIe) oriented, Thompson had been founded in 1864. At J. Walter Thompson a key to the executive washroom carried almost as much cachet then as a personal limousine would today.
Between 1946 and 1956, according to Advertising Age’s estimates, Thompson’s billings grew from $78 million to $220 million, and they topped $300 million before 1960. Most of this growth was based on the television boom. With few exceptions Thompson’s major competitors grew as fast or faster.
JWT, as it was called, was the very model of a modern advertising firm. At its New York headquarters in the Graybar Building, an appendage of Grand Central Terminal, waves of secretaries arrived each morning in their ladylike hats, fresh white gloves, and stockings in both winter and unair-conditioned summer. JWT men were uniformly tailored by Brooks Brothers, J. Press, Chipp, or at the very least Rogers Peet.
Thompson’s tall, patrician president, Stanley Resor, set the tone at the agency from 1917, when he bought it, well into the fifties. With his striking, icy-eyed wife, Helen—a gifted copy- writer—Resor devoted his life to making the business responsible, professional, and dignified. In the early 1940s, the legend goes, one of Resor’s vice presidents set out to win the Camel cigarette account for JWT. It looked like a sure thing. All the agency had to do to close the deal was submit some speculative advertising. Camel was the biggest cigarette in the business—the best seller and biggest spender. Most agencies would have killed for the account. Stanley Resor felt otherwise.
JWT policy forbade doing speculative work for any prospect. The vice president, Bill Esty, urged Resor to make an exception for Camel. Resor haughtily refused, and Esty departed JWT in what Fortune magazine later described as a “shower of sparks.” He opened the William Esty Company a block away. Overnight the William Esty Company was a major agency. Esty launched R. J. Reynolds’s Winston and Salem brands in the mid-fifties, and both became gold mines for his agency.