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.
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
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
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).
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.
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
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.
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
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
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.
Photos courtesy of Leo Burnett
Photos courtesy of Leo Burnett
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.
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
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."
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.
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.
Photos courtesy of Leo Burnett
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also Advertising Company