Inventing The Commercial

PrintPrintEmailEmail

Resor pioneered consumer research with the JWT Consumer Panel, a national list of householders recruited to keep diaries of their everyday purchases. They regularly mailed the diaries to JWT, New York, in exchange for modest rewards, such as coupons for products the agency handled. If a new soap, toothpaste, or food product ignited the sales charts, the JWT Consumer Panel would sound the alarm, so when television arrived, Thompson was quick to sense its selling power. JWT urged its clients to take the lead in sponsoring quality TV programs the agency would create, just as it had for radio.

In 1947 Thompson launched “The Kraft Television Theater,” bringing original live drama and star talent to television for the first time. Schlitz beer, Armstrong floors, Philco appliances, Goodyear, and others all launched television theaters of their own. But “Kraft Theater” was the opening curtain. It survived for more than twenty years.

“Kraft theater” also took Red Barber’s naive demo commercials to new heights for Kraft foods. During intermissions Ed Herlihy, the voice of Kraft for the next forty years, described the action as viewers saw Miracle Whip, Velveeta, and Cheez Whiz transformed live into an endless menu of culinary delights.

What viewers did not see were the harried “home economists”—they’re called “food stylists” today—who heated and stirred, sliced and poured, just out of camera range. Endless rehearsals, truckloads of food, and real human tears went into these live how-to commercials. If the cheese sauce spilled or the lady poked her finger through an egg, well, that was live television. No matter how many rehearsals, nobody’s perfect. But JWT became masters of the demo for Kraft, Scott Paper, Lever Brothers, and a long list of others.

The most ingenious demos were usually those promoting consumer goods in highly competitive product categories. This was where a demonstrable difference—even a tiny one —could make a product soar off the sales graph. Only television could turn tiny differences into compelling theater, sixty seconds at a time.

Classic early demos included the egg test (1956), in which a Band-Aid plastic strip with “Super Stick” clung fast to an egg even in boiling water; the Remington shaver peach test of 1954 (“shaves close enough to shave a peach”); the Timex watch torture tests, with John Cameron Swayze (“Timex takes a licking and keeps on ticking”), from 1948 to 1968; RCA’s “Impac Case,” a plastic portable radio that survived a drop from a twelve-foot ladder (1954); and of course Betty Furness’s Westinghouse appliance demos, each of which proved “You can be sure … if it’s Westinghouse” (1949-1960).

Betty Furness was the undisputed queen of the live demo, first gaining national attention during the 1952 and 1956 Republican and Democratic conventions. Day and night, product after product, in the heat of high summer, Betty coolly sold appliances as nobody has before or since. But one of the most perversely memorable Westinghouse demos—for which Betty has been incorrectly credited—was handled by a bright, unflappable young actress named June Graham.

June was demonstrating an “easy open” Westinghouse “frost-free” refrigerator, the door of which stubbornly refused to yield. She pressed, tapped, and then thumped the “easy open” button. But no luck. So, barely missing a beat, she shifted emphasis to the “frost-free” feature as the camera moved in close on her face, squeezing the fridge out of the picture while someone in the studio crew overcame the traitorous easy-open mechanism. As the camera moved back out again, it revealed a smiling June Graham beside the now open door. Millions who saw the spot never forgot it, and it was reported in newspapers nationwide.

In 1959, in Dayton, Ohio, I nearly electrocuted a lady named Betty Rogge while she was doing a live demo with a Frigidaire electric range. Frigidaire was a client of Dancer-Fitzgerald-Sample, Inc., and I, in my mid-twenties, was the creative director of the DFS Dayton office. When Frigidaire asked me to produce four live commercials at WLW-D, Dayton, on election night, I was delighted. This would be my first solo production. I had written dozens of TV commercials, but in this case I was required to write, direct, and produce the commercials entirely on my own. I never imagined I might threaten somebody’s life in the process.

Frigidaire had a new campaign created at DFS, New York: “You’ll feel like a queen with Frigidaire.” I was told to find a “queen” in Dayton and have her deliver the commercials while balancing a brass coronet on her head. No easy job for live television.

I booked Betty Rogge, a talented local spokesperson, as our queen and had her rehearse with the crown until she could do cartwheels while wearing it. On election night Betty donned her crown and clipped the microphone to her bra beneath her soft, high-necked dress. She was ready: regal, cool, and lovely. When I cued her, she stepped up to the range, draped her hand on it, and delivered her lines flawlessly. But as soon as she heard, “Cut,” Betty screamed, “Help! I can’t move!” The microphone had somehow short-circuited to her skin when she touched the range. She could not let go. Some quick-witted person disconnected the microphone wire and possibly saved Betty’s life.