Inventing The Commercial

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The U.S.P. meant describing a product and its benefits so that consumers would feel they had never heard of such a thing before and had to have it, yet no competitor could duplicate it without appearing to be a craven imitator. Once this was accomplished, the advertiser had only to keep hammering away at the same message as often and loudly as possible. On television, of course.

By scattering his spots far and wide, with little regard for what programs they were in, Reeves spent his clients’ money efficiently, and he never (well, almost never) changed the commercials, which also saved a few dollars. He insisted, correctly, that even a weak commercial, run again and again, will outperform individually stronger commercials that keep changing.

Under Reeves’s guidance the Ted Bates Agency launched TV campaigns for Colgate toothpaste (“Cleans your breath while it cleans your teeth”), M&M’s candy (“Melts in your mouth, not in your hand”), Wonder bread (“Builds strong bodies 12 ways”), and a flock of others. In 1952 Reeves wrote, produced, and directed the first TV spots ever used in a presidential election. They were titled “The Man From Abilene.” He gave Dwight Eisenhower very few lines to speak on camera, relying on Ike’s folksy image rather than his painfully self-conscious acting. By election day “The Man From Abilene” was almost as omnipresent on the tube as Ivory soap or Listerine. Some people were shocked to see Eisenhower peddled like toothpaste, but Adlai Stevenson became the last presidential candidate not to use television.

Rosser Reeves’s polar opposite was probably Leo Burnett, of Chicago’s Leo Burnett agency. Burnett made commercials that were distinctive and direct but also fun to watch. His agency probably created more animated commercial characters than anyone else in the business: the Jolly Green Giant, Tony the Tiger, the Keebler Elves, Charlie the Tuna, and dozens of others. Many are still performing.

Animated characters make superb salespeople. They never grow old. They never get in trouble with the law or spouses not their own. And they can do anything people can do and more —like baking cookies in hollow trees.

Among television’s very first animated characters were the pixies created in 1948 by the Sherman & Marquette agency for Colgate’s Ajax cleanser. Its singing commercial made Ajax—the first scouring powder to contain detergent—the number one brand. Its ditty was unforgettable:

Try Ajax (Bum Bum), the foaming cleanser, (Ba, Ba, Ba, Ba, Ba, Bum, Bum), Floats the dirt…right down the drain! (Ba, Ba, Ba, Ba, Ba, Ba, Bum!)

The pixies were too unforgettable, it turned out. When Procter & Gamble’s Comet cleanser with chlorine bleach arrived some years later, nobody seemed able to write a television spot for Ajax that could effectively introduce new Ajax with bleach. According to Colgate’s consumer-recall tests, housewives remembered nothing about Ajax except (Bum, Bum) pixies ! It wasn’t until around 1960s when I wrote a “slice of life” commercial using Bess Myerson—a former Miss America and a popular gameshow panelist—that the pixies disappeared. But don’t be shocked if they reappear one day. It wouldn’t be the first time an old commercial idea was resurrected. Speedy Alka-Seltzer came back from the dead after twenty years to replace some very clever Alka-Seltzer advertising: the famous “Bellies” commercial and “Some spicy meatball,” both award winners. Trade gossip says Speedy simply sold more AlkaSeltzer.

In 1954, television became the dominant medium for national advertising. At the same time, network radio imploded as the major stars and their audiences abandoned it in favor of TV. Even general magazines grew thinner and thinner as advertisers moved their dollars to television scatter plans, shotgunning one-minute spots throughout prime time.

By the early sixties the ad-lib, ad hoc quality of live television had almost totally disappeared. Fewer live shows and live commercials went on the air. Live hosts—Arthur Godfrey, Carry Moore, Dave Garroway, and Jack Paar—cut their involvement with advertising to live lead-ins to filmed spots: “Here’s good news from the folks who make Glass Wax!” or “Don’t go ‘way, we’ll be back in one minute …”

Television had matured, become formalized. Shows, time slots, commercials, and even personalities acquired ratings. Each measurement was crucial. The financial stakes had become so enormous that live television was nearly dead. It simply didn’t fit the formula.

To paraphrase Winston Churchill, this was not the end or even the beginning of the end. But it was certainly the end of the beginning.

VIDEOTAPE versus FILM: And the winner is …