During ABC's broadcast of Super Bowl XXIX in 1995 advertisers were willing to pay roughly $1 million to secure 30 seconds of airtime. Pepsi-Cola purchased four game slots, three of them a minute long, to launch its "NOTHING ELSE IS A PEPSI" campaign. The $8 million investment was deemed justifiable because Pepsi executives expected the Superbowl to fulfill its projections: to attract the largest television audience of the entire year. The example is merely one indication of advertising's central role in the story of television.

In the beginning the numbers were hardly extraordinary. In 1941, for example, Bulova Watches spent $9 to buy time on the first advertising spot offered by NBC's fledgling New York station. Soon, however, success stories such as the case of Hazel Bishop cosmetics, whose jump into TV produced a sales explosion, convinced advertisers that it was worthile to pay much more to reach the expanding TV audience. Ad revenue fueled the television boom in the United States during the 1950s, and by 1960 TV had become the chief medium of national advertising, earning $1.5 billion as a result. Rating agencies, notably A.C. Nielsen, played a crucial role by measuring the audience size and estimating the audience composition of particular shows. Advertising shaped both programming and the schedule to maximize hits, at that time, largely sports and entertainment offerings. Indeed, ad agencies controlled the actual production of many shows, securing writers, technical personnel, and talent, and overseeing scripts and production design. It was not until the quiz scandals at the end of the decade led the networks to take control of their programming that the advertising agencies focused their work primarily on brokering air time and producing commercial spots.

The success of commercial television as a medium linked to the selling of products provoked an outcry. Vance Packard's 1957 exposť, The Hidden Persuaders, identified television as one of the chief villains in the effort to manipulate the American consumer. In 1961 the new FCC chair Newton Minow told a stunned audience of broadcast executives that television was 'a vast wasteland,' funded by a seemingly endless supply of commercials.

Initially few countries followed the American example of supporting their new broadcast media with a commercial, advertiser supported financial base. Britain, Canada, and much of western Europe organized television as public service systems. Program development and production, as well as the technical aspects of broadcasting, were funded in part by taxes. But the expenses of television broadcasting were so high and the private demand for commercial airtime so great that some services accommodated advertising: the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation used ad revenues to finance indigenous programming. Both Japan and Australia launched separate commercial and public services in 1953. A year later ad agencies, now fully international in scope and influence (notably the Ameircan-based J. Walter Thompson agency) played a part in convincing the British government to end the BBC monopoly and allow a new channel, a commercial service to be placed on the air.

Even so, television commercials, the visible artifacts of advertising in their familiar 30 or 60--and later their 15--second versions, long retained the imprint of their American birth. Canadian advertisers hired American talent in New York. Young & Rubicam, an American agency, created Ice Mountain for Gibbs toothpaste, the first British television commercial ever aired (September 1955).

The prevalent strategy of American advertising in the 1950s was the 60-second hard sell: hit the viewer with bits of information, explain how the product was unique, repeat this argument to drive home the message. The earnest enthusiasm might please the advertisers but it disturbed its victims. If American viewers were largely satisfied with their television fare, according to a 1960 survey, they were upset by the frequency, the timing, the loudness, and the style of commercials. Still, Few were ready to pay for noncommercial television through their taxes or a license fee on the television receivers that sat in their living rooms.

Television advertising grew more sophisticated and extravagant during the 1960s. The advent of color TV accentuated the visual dimension of advertising. The increasing cost of air time fostered a move toward 30-second commercials which relied on metaphor even more than logic. Just as important was the "Creative Revolution" which swept over Madison Avenue, led by newcomers and new agencies who experimented with the soft sell. Their emblem was the funny and imaginative Volkswagen campaign that was widely credited with making the "Beetle" an American icon. In fact commercials were more important to Marlboro: sales doubled in the late 1960s, reaching 51.4 billion units, launching the brand on a trajectory that would make it the American leader. One by-product of the "revolution" was the appearance of spots which pleased viewers: the bouncy tune and happy images of Coca-Cola's famous Hilltop (1971) may not have taught the world to sing, but it led enthusiastic viewers to phone television stations requesting more showings of the ad.

After the mid-1960s, television advertising also became a significant tool of public power. The free public service announcement (PSA) won favor as a way of convincing people to donate moneys, to stop smoking or drinking and driving, to fight drugs.

Political advertising was transformed by Daisy, a miniature horror movie which used visuals to link Republican candidate Barry Goldwater to a nuclear holocaust. Shown only once (on CBS, 7 September 1964), the outcry it provoked amply demonstrated how the political spot could be an emotional bomb. By 1988 half of the $92.1 million expended by George Bush and Michael Dukakis went to advertising, mostly on television. Even if these sums were much smaller than Coca-Cola or Procter & Gamble might spend in any given year, political advertising now challenged the news as the chief source of election discourse, evidenced by the attention paid to the "Willie Horton" attack ads which smeared Dukakis in 1988. By Campaign '94, not only had total ad spending approached $1 billion but negative advertising had exploded in what Advertising Age (November 14, 1994) called "the season of sleaze." Meanwhile the partial repeal of the Fairness Doctrine in 1987 had opened the airwaves to advocacy advertising. In 1993 the Health Insurance Association of America managed to catalyze public suspicion of the Clinton Health Initiative with its "Harry & Louise" spots, which eventually contributed to the defeat of health reform.

Americans have remained the masters of political and advocacy advertising. Not so in other realms, however. The inventiveness declined in part because the "Creative Revolution" waned in the 1970s. American advertisers came to favor once more the hard sell. Another reason lay in the victory of private over public television in country after country, thereby creating new channels for advertising. In the Third World, ad revenues were crucial to the expansion of television, though a fear of excessive commercialism justified Indonesia's ban on television ads in 1981. First in Italy (mid-1970s), then in France (mid-1980s), and soon everywhere, the airwaves of western Europe were opened to private television. Following the collapse of the Soviet empire, ads swiftly appeared in eastern Europe and Russia--the Marlboro cowboy, banned from American screens after 1970, could be found riding proudly on Russian television in the summer of 1993. The spread of satellite TV in Europe after 1990 offered even more time for marketing.

The British were the first to break free from American tutelage. There, ad-makers refined the ironic sell--one of the first major successes was the ongoing Heineken "Refreshes" campaign launched in 1974--which became a key marketing strategy in Europe and America during the late 1980s. Also in the 1970s, the British government sponsored social ads to shape public behavior, an initiative that was pursued in Canada as well, where the state often proved the largest single advertiser. British ad-makers soon developed the shock-style of social advertising which used brutal images of misery, death, and horror to jolt people out of their complacency. This too became commonplace in the late 1980s and early 1990s, during the global war against AIDS, drugs, drinking and driving, racism, hunger, and other ills.

Worldwide, the best of television commercials had become works of art that reflected the tastes, the fears, and the hopes of their communi-ties. The sums of money spent on making commercials were enormous: it was estimated that the ads for Pepsi-Cola's "New Generation" campaign of the mid-1980s cost about $20,000 a second to produce, far more than regular TV programming. European ad-makers usually eschewed the American passion for the hard sell and comparative advertising. Many ads acquired a kind of national signature: bizarre imagery (France), a humorous emphasis (Britain), gentleness (Canada), sensuality (Brazil and France), exposť (Germany), or beauty (Japan). Run-of-the-mill advertising might still irritate. But in the 1980s television networks offered up collections of old and new ads, movie houses showed the world's best (the Cannes award winners), newspapers and magazines reviewed ads and advertising trends. There was some truth to the claim by Marshall McLuhan--cited once again by Time in 1990--that advertising was "the greatest art form of the twentieth century.

Kellog's Tony the Tiger
Photos courtesy of Leo Burnett



Maytag's Lonely Repairman
Photos courtesy of Leo Burnett

It would, of course, be an exaggeration to apply that label to every form of television advertising. Consider the infomercial. American ad-makers pioneered this form during the late 1980s. Typically the infomercial is a sponsored message, 30 minutes long, which masquerades as a regular program, often as a talk or interview show complete with commercial inserts. The form has been used to hype hair restorers, diet plans, memory expanders, real estate techniques, living aids, gym equipment, and so on. The earnest enthusiasm of the infomercial harks back to the ad style of the 1950s, while the element of direct response (the insistence on phoning now to purchase the brand) looks forward to the future of interactive television. The infomercial proved so successful by the mid-1990s that it had spread into Britain and western Europe. In the United States and Canada major national marketers such as Ford or Philips were experimenting with this long-form advertising. It was estimated that infomercials were generating around a billion dollars worth of ad business a year.That figure nevertheless remains modest by comparison with the scale of conventional television advertising. Altogether, television attracted over $34 billion of the total $150 billion of U.S. advertising volume in 1994, which put the medium roughly on a par with newspapers. Indeed TV beat out all other media in Japan, Germany, Britain, France, Italy, Brazil, and Spain. Only in south Korea and Canada were newspapers ahead, and in Canada that was because advertisers could reach so many customers via American television.

Yet such success was little comfort to an industry worried by the future of pay or subscriber-based television. The record of television advertising as a marketing tool is not spectacular: people avoid, discount, or disdain most commercials they see. The enormous clutter of ads on television has made recent campaigns much less memorable than ten or twenty years ago, or so surveys suggest. In 1994 Edwin Artzt, then Chairman-CEO of Procter & Gamble, the largest single TV advertiser in the United States (spending $1,051.2 million in 1993), frightened listeners at the American Association of Advertising Agencies with his warning that ad-supported television could soon disappear.

Many people would find that welcome, though they would be less impressed with Artzt's proposed remedy, a return to the days of sponsor-controlled programming. The laments of a Packard or a Minow have been echoed by an assortment of critics around the world who have blamed advertising for vulgarizing TV, degrading politics, and emphasizing materialism. Indeed, television advertising is often viewed as the most potent agent of a gospel of consumption. A central tenent of that gospel preaches that satisfaction is for sale. "What advertising has done is to seep out beyond its proper sphere," asserted Mark Crispin Miller in a NBC documentary Sex, Buys, and Advertising (aired July 31, 1990), "and to kind of take over the culture."

Ultimately such claims rest upon a presumption of the awesome cultural power of advertising. Advertising has conditioned the character of television programming, sometimes even inspired a program: Coca-Cola's Mean Joe Greene (1979) was the model for a later NBC movie. Ad slogans have entered the common language: "Where's the beef?" (Wendy's) found a place in the 1984 presidential campaign. Ad critters, notably Kellogg's Tony the Tiger, have become kids' favorites. Ad stars have become famous: the appearance of Nick Kamen in a Levi's 501 ad in Britain in the mid-80s made him a symbol of male sensuality.

Such examples demonstrates that commercials are another source of popular culture, a vast collection of meanings and pleasures created by the public to understand and enrich their ordinary experience. The appropriation, creation, and manipulation of these meanings and pleaures by those who assume that they help to sell products continues to be a source of intense cultural and social scrutiny and debate. All the while, the variety of effects of TV advertising on our lives remain contested and unproven.

-Paul Rutherford

Maytag's Lonely Repairman
Photos courtesy of Leo Burnett


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See also Advertising Company Voice; Advertising Agency; Demographics; Magid Associates; Market; Narrowcasting; Pay Cable; Pay Television; Pay-Per-View Television; Ratings; Share; Cost-per-Thousand; Sponsor; Zapping