Company voice advertising typically presents its sponsors as good corporate citizens, forward-thinking providers of products, jobs and services, and as active supporters of causes such as environmentalism. Historically a staple of magazines, radio and sponsored motion pictures, company voice advertising helped shape sponsorships of dramatic anthology, spectacular, news and documentary programs. After 1970, the practice helped shape Public Broadcasting Service program underwriting.

Alternately known as "public relations," "institutional" or "advocacy advertising," company voice advertising seeks a favorable political climate for the expansion of its sponsors' commercial activities and interests. One of the earliest campaigns of its kind dating to 1908, for example, promoted the "universal service" of the AT&T Bell System telephone monopoly. By the late 1920s public-minded "progress" had become the highly advertised hallmark of General Electric (GE), General Motors and other center firms. The practice picked up political significance during the New Deal and later during World War II, when all manner of advertising promoted business's patriotic sacrifice and struggle on the production front.

After the war, business leaders remained suspicious of centralized government, confiscatory taxation, politically powerful labor, and what many believed to be the public's outmoded fear of big business. In bringing postwar public and employee relations to television, business invested in programs whose objectives ranged from economic education to outright entertainment. Factory processes and free enterprise rhetoric appeared regularly. The National Association of Manufacturers, for example, launched Industry on Parade, a syndicated telefilm series that toured the nation's industrial centers. Initially produced by the NBC News film unit, the series ran from 1951 to 1958. Business and trade groups worked television into training and employee relations. Drexel Institute of Technology's University of the Air, for example, took advantage of marginal television time in the Philadelphia area for noon-hour panel discussions of labor-management issues. Designed for in-plant reception by audiences of supervisory trainees and managers, the scenes attracted spouses in the home viewing audience, who, one publicist proudly noted, had become the new fans of industrial human relations.

Entering television for the first time, major corporations predicated their public and employee relations activities upon the experience of entertainment. General Electric and DuPont, both active in economic education, favored the editorial control of dramatic anthology programs. The company voice specialists of the General Electric Theater ruled out the sponsorship of panel discussions such as Meet the Press and Youth Wants to Know, because the format posed the threat of comment inimical to business. DuPont continued its investment in tightly controlled drama with the transfer of radio's Cavalcade of America to television in 1952. DuPont specialists justified their television investment with projected declining costs per-thousand, that by 1954 would equal radio's peak year of 1948. Further delineating the audience for company voice messages, specialists anticipated the maturity of a generation with no first hand knowledge of the Depression--or as GE's Chester H. Lang put it, "no adult exposure to the violent anti-business propaganda of the 'depression' years. The opinions the young people form now, as they grow up," Lang explained, "will determine the climate in which we will operate in the decades of their maturity." "Television offers us the most effective medium ever created by man for the communication of ideas and attitudes." DuPont's F. Lyman Dewey suggested that his company's investment in television affirmed its executives' appreciation of the fact that there was no longer a question of "shall we as DuPont representatives use these powerful tools of communication--but shall we use them well."

Recoiling from television's expense and unproved effect, other company voice advertisers hesitantly incorporated the new medium into their plans. More than a few invested in alternating-week sponsorships that further divided commercial breaks between product sales and company voice messages. U.S. Steel predicated its television plans in part upon a tax code that allowed deductions for product sales and company voice advertising as a business expense. Its first telecast Christmas night 1952 presented Dickens' A Christmas Carol. The U. S. Steel Hour later apportioned commercial breaks between company voice messages read by "Voice of U.S. Steel" announcer George Hicks, and industry-wide product sales promotions acted out by U.S. Steel's "family team" Mary Kay and Johnny.

Spectacular programs built around light entertainment, sports and special events presented sponsors as adjuncts of national life and culture. General Motors, reminiscent of its massive investments m wartime institutional advertising, entered television in the 1952/53 season with a weekly schedule of NCAA Football, followed by the Eisenhower Inauguration and the Coronation of Elizabeth II. Ford Motor Company and the electrical industry each invested in light entertainment. The success of the Ford 50th Anniversary Show simultaneously telecast on NBC and CBS led to similarly conceived "horizontal saturation" for the 1954 television season. Light's Diamond Jubilee, for example, a two-hour spectacular celebrating the 75th anniversary of Thomas Edison's invention of the electric light, appeared on four networks. The David O. Selznick production featured a filmed talk by President Eisenhower, narration by Joseph Cotten and sketches and musical numbers with Walter Brennan, Kim Novak, Helen Hayes, Lauren Bacall, David Niven, Judith Anderson and Eddie Fisher.

By the mid-1950s nearly every major American corporation had entered television to build audiences for company voice advertising. The Aluminum Company of America sponsored Edward R. Murrow's See It Now to boost its name recognition with the public and with manufacturers using aluminum. Reynolds Aluminum sponsored Mr. Peepers, while the Aluminum Company of Canada with others sponsored Omnibus. Underwritten by the Ford Foundation as a demonstration of "television at its best," the Sunday afternoon series presented diverse entertainments hosted by Alistair Cooke. Not averse to commercial sponsorship, Omnibus anticipated the "making possible" program environment of the Public Broadcasting Service.

While politically active corporations embraced the prestigious possibilities of drama, light entertainment and special events, by 1960 many had become willing sponsors of science, news and documentary programs. The promotion of scientific and technological competence took on special urgency after the Soviet launch of the Sputnik spacecraft m 1958. The corporate-cool television presence of the Bell System exemplified the trend. In 1956 Bell entered television with half-hour dramas entitled Telephone Time. 110 episodes ran until 1958 dramatizing the success stories of "little people." In 1959 Bell returned to the air with four musical specials that evolved into the Bell Telephone Hour. Light orchestral music, musical numbers and ballet sequences accompanied "Of time and space" company voice messages. Bell also developed preemptive documentary programs on weather, genetics, circulation of the blood and cosmic rays, and the Threshold series treating the American space program. Bell also purchased related CBS documentaries such as "Why Man in Space?" Adopting a similar strategy, Texaco, Gulf and Westinghouse each televised network news and special events laden with scientific and technological news value. Texaco became an early sponsor of NBC's Huntley-Brinkley Report. The "unassuming authenticity and easy informality" of co-anchors Chet Huntley and David Brinkley were thought to complement Texaco's "dependability" message. Gulf raised its institutional profile with "instant specials" featuring NBC correspondent Frank McGee, who covered the events of the 1960 presidential campaign and the U.S. space program. Documentary films such as "The Tunnel" rounded out the schedule. Westinghouse Presents featured documentary specials "Our Man in Vienna" with David Brinkley, "The Land" with Chet Huntley and "The Wacky World of Jerry Lewis." Company voice messages promoted Westinghouse's "scientific achievements, dedication and sincere interest in people," qualities thought to mitigate the negative public relations impact of 641 civil damage suits stemming from charges of price-fixing.

The multinational aspirations of Xerox Corporation sought complementary qualities of excellence. Not unlike the program strategies pursued by steel, automotive and electrical producers, Xerox embarked upon an aggressive public relations campaign by purchasing programs that "get talked about": Huntley-Brinkley Reports treating the Kremlin, Communism, Jimmy Hoffa, Cuba and Korea, the Making of the President 1960 and 1964, and a series of 90-minute specials dramatizing the work of United Nations social agencies. Broadcast without commercial interruption on NBC and ABC, the U.N. series targeted the international community identified as key to the expansion of the office copier market. A model of corporate underwriting, Xerox's U.N. dramas won critical acclaim that helped justify the series' $4 million expense to stockholders who questioned its value. The series' most celebrated program, "Carol for Another Christmas," featured a Rod Serling script that revisited the horrors of Hiroshima, the millions unavailable to Western abundance, and the bleakest of futures prefigured by the hydrogen bomb. Xerox later sponsored Civilisation with Kenneth Clark. Thirteen one-hour programs presented "leading social issues and advanced art forms" reviewing "1600 years of Western man's great art and ideas. . . man at his finest on television at its finest."

While company voice advertisers of the early 1950s anticipated the maturity of a television generation with no direct knowledge of the Depression, the company voice advertisers of the early 1960s bemoaned that generation's expectation that business extend its interests beyond the balance sheet to include social goals in the areas of minority employment, consumer protection and environmentalism. Public opinion pollster Louis Harris described the public image of U.S. business as "bight, but flawed." Specialists set out to narrow the distance between corporate claim and performance said to be as great as the so-called generation gap. Not only had society become more impersonal and complex, they argued, but increasingly polarized and problematic. Hoping to erase lingering doubts about advertising's impact and effect, specialists sharpened claims for advocacy advertising as "the one remaining tool with which business can apply counter pressure in an adversary society."

John E. O'Toole, the thoughtful president of the Madison Avenue agency Foote, Cone & Belding, suggested that business leaders learn to emulate the "adversary culture" of intellectual and academic pursuits, political activists and consumer groups "who seek basic changes in the system." O'Toole noted that while each "culture" had necessary and legitimate functions, the adversary culture dominated the media. In complex times, O'Toole argued, business should make certain that its unique claims of social leadership rose above the dissident clutter.

Led by the oil industry, the 1970s witnessed significant investment in company voice television. Reeling from the public relations fallout of rising energy prices, American-based petroleum producers became a presence on the Public Broadcasting Service. Mobil's Masterpiece Theatre with one-time Omnibus host Alistair Cooke debuted in January 1971. As historian Laurence Jarvik notes, Mobil soon displaced the Ford Foundation as the single largest contributor to public television, raising its initial program grant of $390,000 to $12 million by 1990. Masterpiece Theatre, Mystery! and Upstairs, Downstairs provided cultural cover for a heavy schedule of combative advocacy ads published in the op-ed sections of The New York Times and the Washington Post. In the late 1970s the ad campaign came to television: elaborately costumed "A Fable for Now" spots featuring mimes Shields & Yarnell, the Pilobolus Dance Theatre, the Louis Falco Dance Company, the Richard Morris Dance Theatre and members of the American Ballet Theatre enlivened Mobil's anti-regulatory rhetoric in parables of scarcity and abundance drawn from the animal kingdom. "Mobil Information Center" spots aired locally before network newscasts employed an anchorman-correspondent simulation to tout "the freedom of the press," along with the pro-growth logic of offshore drilling, nuclear power plant construction, deregulation of natural gas and the restriction of environmental regulation.

While sympathetic critics wondered if Mobil could have carried out its advocacy campaign without the expense of television drama, others suggested that big oil's enthusiastic underwriting of public television had turned PBS into the "Petroleum Broadcasting Service." PBS president Lawrence K. Grossman urged perspective on the funding issue. In 1977 Grossman explained that though oil company funding had increased tenfold since the early 1970s, oil company moneys represented less than 3% of system income. "What conclusion," asked Grossman, "do we in public television draw from these numbers? Not that oil companies should contribute less but rather that corporations of all other types should be asked to contribute more!"

By 1983 corporate support for PBS had flattened out at $38 million for the two previous years, presaging a decade of declining Federal appropriations that left PBS ever more dependent upon the market for support. In 1981 network officials won congressional approval for an 18-month experiment in "enhanced underwriting." Two-minute credits at the beginning and conclusion of programs telecast by nine PBS affiliates allowed mention of brand names, slogans and institutional messages beyond previously restricted verbal mentions and static displays of logos. The discussion of corporate mascots, animated logos, product demonstrations and superlatives to tap a new class of advertising revenue alarmed established underwriters. In an effort to conserve PBS' uncluttered institutional character, national program underwriters Mobil, the Chubb Group of Insurance Companies, Chevron, AT&T, Exxon, Ford, General Electric, IBM, GTE, J.C. Penny, Morgan Guaranty Trust, Owens-Corning and others formed the Corporations in Support of Public Television (CSPT). The CSPT promoted the concept of "quality demographics" among potential corporate underwriters who desired to advertise "excellence," social cause identification and the occasional product.

AT and T, for example, had recently provided $9 million for expanded one-hour coverage of the MacNeil/Lehrer Report (later News Hour). Emphasizing performance and communication, specialists expected the buy to enhance AT&T's image as an information provider after of its breakup into regional "Baby Bells" by the U.S. Justice Department.

Reviewing their company voice accounts, specialists themselves perhaps wondered just what effect their long-term advertising campaigns had bought. Increasingly business found itself the subject of critical television news stories treating the environment, the OPEC oil shock, inflation and recession. Corporate critics charged that public television had become a prime example of what Alan Wolfe described as "logo America," in which "the only price a company will charge for its public service activities is the right to display its logo." Near the opposite end of the political spectrum, critic David Horowitz described PBS' broadcast schedule as a "monotonous diet of left-wing politics," though it would have been hard to find such programs equaling the possibilities, much less access, available to the company voice advertiser. Mobil, for example, financed an hour-long PBS documentary program criticizing the anti-business thrust of prime time network television drama. Hosted by writer Benjamin Stein, Hollywood's Favorite Heavy: Businessmen on Prime Time TV used clips from Dallas, Dynasty and Falcon Crest to contend that television had destroyed youth's outlook upon business and business ethics. A peculiar assumption, wrote critic Jay Rosen in Channels magazine, since television itself was a business, and advertisements had made consumption "the nearest thing to religion for most Americans." Mobil, however, had decided that it could not countenance Blake Carrington, J.R. Ewing and other stereotypes of rapacious businessman in prime time. Interestingly, General Electric declined to join Mobil as a Hollywood's Favorite Heavy underwriter, preferring instead to stick with its "We Bring Good Things to Life" spot campaign. Having rethought its aversion to panel discussions, GE aired its "Good Things" campaign on ABC's This Week with David Brinkley and The McLaughlin Group. The latter appeared commercially on NBC's five owned and operated stations, and publicly on a 230 station PBS network.

As the century draws to a close and funding for all forms of television continues to be squeezed by new outlets and new technologies such as computer access to the Internet, corporations continue to seek new connections to media. The trend that began with the origins of mass media shows no sign of abating.

-William L. Bird Jr.


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See also Advertising; Alcoa Hour