Television! Teacher. Mother. Secret Lover…

IN THE BEGINNING, there was Print.

The Advertising Gods saw it, and it was Good.

For the better part of the 19th century (and many years before!) advertisers, salespeople and other businessmen would hawk their products using print, calligraphy and imagery. Going back even further than that, the ancient Egyptians, Romans, Greeks and other civilisations used papyrus (and even walls – take that, OoH!) to spread sales messages and campaign for politics. In Ancient Chinese history, there are tales of flutes being played to sell candy. Over in Europe, blacksmiths, innkeepers and other tradespeople had to use simple imagery on their shop signs to attract and inform customers… as nobody could read. Classic.

Then (yes we’re in the 20th Century now, keep up!) came the advent of Radio, where the Advertising Gods realised that they could  – literally – talk to their customers in a more effective way. Radio has traditionally received a great deal of its funding from advertising and remains one of the most integral pieces of the marketing puzzle to date.

Once the War hit, advertising hit a rough spot – businesses and consumers tightened their purse strings, and advertising and marketing became an increasingly fragile industry. Advertising became more like propaganda – the industry was integral in mobilizing the American people such that they would become patriotic, passionate and loyal to their country. As the war came to a close, thanks to the shift to a more ideological message, the industry had set up all the building blocks of the ‘consumer culture’ which was soon to flourish.

After the War, when the world was ready to rebuild, Television came into its own – and the Advertising Gods came with it. Television was like the marriage of all that had come before – moving pictures AND sound. What a time to be alive! Whilst the very first TV ad aired way back in 1941 (at a baseball game… how American!), it wasn’t until the 50s when television advertising really took off. (sidebar: that first ad reportedly cost $4. Yep, that’s four dollars. FOUR. DOLLARS. Ridiculous. That’s… what? Less than half a second worth of airtime today?)

As the economy began to stabilise, and consumers became more eager to part with their hard-earned money, advertisers had to re-learn how to market products instead of ideals, at the same time as learning how to utilize a brand-new medium for the first time. Quite an undertaking, really. Partly as a response to the mass uptake of television sets, but mostly due to the larger economic upswing, many more agencies popped up over the course of the decade. Around this same time, the idea of a USP was first floated and adopted, further changing how advertisers sold their products. Basically, this period of advertising was one of the most crucial and exciting, and has had a lasting effect on the industry to this day.

Early TV advertising was long and often rather repetitive – even for the time. Corporations would sponsor TV shows, leading to things like ‘The Colgate Comedy Hour’. In fact, it’s said that soap operas themselves were named such due to their association with and sponsorship by Proctor and Gamble. Sponsored content like this continued well into the decade, until it was revealed that quiz-shows were being rigged by sponsors. Over time, this phenomenon has largely shifted to things such as product placement, top and tail ads, and even the occasional ‘Brought to you by…’ ad, which itself seems to have dropped off in recent years. In fact, the idea of a ‘commercial’ as we know it today didn’t really even exist until the 60s.

In the early days, the medium of TV was mostly used for product demonstration. No longer were advertisers simply extolling the virtues of their products and praying that the target consumer would take their word for it and try it for themselves. For the first time, film allowed advertisers to show AND tell, and the messages were consumed in the comfort of their targets’ own homes. The key here was that much of the advertising was for products people needed, especially after the war. The real challenge began when supply met demand, and the consumer once again possessed the bare necessities of life. (I hope I’m not the only one with that song stuck in my head now. If so, you’re welcome. God, what a good movie. Only the original though. The remake can choke.)

So what do you do when your consumer already has everything they need? The mid-50s saw the notion of ‘consumption anxiety’ come into play – something which still occurs today, particularly amongst a certain fruit-based technology company. Essentially, this meant that companies would create updated products and advertisers would campaign around things like status – it became much less ‘you need this item to survive!‘ and more ‘you need this item to stay cool‘ or ‘your neighbours have this already, are you out of touch?‘. Television was instrumental in pushing this along – the medium allowed for a whole new level of creativity, perfect for convincing the consumer in a new way.

On that note, as the need for more creative advertisements grew, advertisers suddenly had to become directors, producers and scriptwriters. Suddenly, it wasn’t enough to list the features of a product against a snappy tune with a happy crew of actors. That wasn’t convincing enough. Now companies needed characters and mascots. Ads needed snappy lines, groundbreaking USPs and enticing visuals. TV became home to some iconic advertisements – from Louie the Fly to the Marlboro Man all the way up to Jan, of ‘Not Happy…’ fame. (My personal favourite!)

As a result of directors and producers very much ‘falling into’ their roles as their job required came the emergence of talented people such as Ridley Scott – people who found a love of directing and the screen out of sheer chance. If history hadn’t played out in exactly the right way, we may never have wound up with classic films such as the Alien franchise. On the upside, we’d also never have had to be subjected to that horrifying birth scene which absolutely still gives me both the heebies AND the jeebies, but I guess you win some and you lose some.

So, I’ve definitely rambled on quite a bit here, haven’t I? There’s so much history around and even because of the advent of television that I could probably have picked one tangent and stayed there for 1000 words… but that’s no fun. I hope you’ve enjoyed this very jumpy trip back through time. Please take some time to look up some old ads on Youtube after you’ve finished reading this, and thank the Good Lord that we don’t have to put up with fifteen minutes of ONE AD anymore. Don Draper would never.





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