Promo University

History of TV Ads

Alyssa Mertes

Published: July 23rd, 2020

Most of us fast-forward through the commercials in this world of Netflix and DVR. Back in the day, though, they were often the best part of an afternoon in front of the television. We sang along to the jingles, begged our parents for the newest toys, and numbly watched the infomercials at two in the morning.

What were some of the earliest TV commercials? How were they developed? Don't change the channel, it's time to learn all about the history of television ads!


Commercials should be seen as works of art that have their own conventions. The power of the human voice is well-known; it is easy to see why the commercial is such an incredible means of persuasion.

– Arthur Asa Berger, author of Ads, Fads, & Consumer Culture

Hour Glass

Timeline of TV Ads

The first television commercial debuted at the height of World War II. Over time, these ads evolved to become pop culture phenomenon, with some funny, others heartwarming, and a select few game-changing.

  • 1950s

    Colgate Source:

    Sponsored programs were popular with big names like Colgate, Mattel, and Coca-Cola. These brands were introduced during the programs and sometimes even made it into the name of the show, such as The Colgate Comedy Hour.

  • 1952

    Dwight D. Eisenhower Source:

    The 34th president of the United States, Dwight D. Eisenhower, had massive success with TV ads. Walt Disney's brother Roy turned the slogan "I Like Ike" into a song and the spots led Eisenhower to win the election.

  • 1952

    Mr. Potato Head Source:

    Mr. Potato Head became the first toy to ever be advertised on television. The original version was a real potato with "piece packets," but nearly two million sold in the first year.

  • 1960s

    Oscar Mayer Jingles Source:

    Jingles were extremely popular with advertisers. Oscar Mayer has one of the most iconic of all time, showing just how valuable it is to have brand personality and a memorable slogan

  • 1965

    Colored TV ad Source:

    RCA released an ad featuring a cartoon character singing about colored TV. It took awhile for every household to have one, but by this time, more than two million people were watching TV in color.

  • 1971

    Cigarette Smoking Ad Source:

    The Public Health Cigarette Smoking Act banned cigarette ads on TV and radio. The Virginia Slim was advertised for the last time during "The Tonight Show."

  • 1979

    Tonic water ad Source:

    China debuted its first commercial for Shengui Tonic Wine. It was 90 seconds long and resulted in a lot of confusion since most of the population had never seen a commercial before.

  • 1979

    Coca-Cola's commercial Source:

    Coca-Cola's commercial with Mean Joe Greene is one of the most iconic of all time, leading the Pittsburgh Steelers to a victory during Super Bowl XIV. The ad came at the tail end of the Civil Rights Movement and changed people's perceptions.

  • 1982

    Nike ad Source:

    Nike came onto television full-throttle with their first commercial. It featured the Chariots of Firetheme song and showed the evolution of running from cavemen to marathon racers.

  • 1984

    Apple ad Source:

    Apple made a bold statement when they released their "1984" commercial. The company sold $155 million in Macintosh computers just three months after the ad aired.

  • 1996

    Crown Royal ad Source:

    Seagram became the first liquor brand to advertise on TV when they released an ad for their Crown Royal. Before then, alcoholic drinks were banned from being promoted on airwaves.

  • 1997

    Guinness Book of World Records Source:

    The first commercial shot in space was an advertisement for an Israeli drink called Tnuva Milk. The ad made it into the Guinness Book of World Records.

  • 2006

    Dove ad Source:

    Dove made a statement about beauty conventions with this timely commercial. The ad showed a woman transforming into a model through a long process of hair, makeup, and Photoshop.

  • 2007

    Hulu Source:

    Hulu changed the way we watch television. A viewer can choose a package deal based on how many ads they want to see, some of which are even exclusive to the streaming service.

  • 2008

    Black Eyed Peas Source: of the band Black Eyed Peas revolutionized political ads with his "Yes I Can" music video for Barack Obama's election. The ad fused music and Obama's public speeches.

  • 2016

    LinkedIn Source:

    LinkedIn released their first commercial. The ad aired during the 88th Academy Awards and was inspired by NASA's decision to use the networking platform to recruit new astronauts.

  • 2018

    Snapchat ad Source:

    Snapchat aired its first commercial on TBS during the NCAA Final Four basketball tournament. The social media platform called themselves "A New Kind of Camera Company" during the minute-long ad.

What Was the First TV Commercial Ever Made?

It was July 1, 1941 and the Brooklyn Dodgers were taking on the Philadelphia Phillies at Ebbets Field. The game was about to kick off when it was suddenly interrupted, not by a crazy fan streaking through the field, but by the world's first television commercial. The ad was for Bulova watches and clocks, a company still in operation today. It lasted for only ten seconds and aired on a local channel in New York called WNBT.

Many advertisers spend upwards of thousands of dollars on a single television ad. This commercial by comparison cost only four to nine dollars to create. With only 1% of U.S. homes having a TV set at the time, the Bulova ad didn't necessarily mean anything big for sales. Still, close to 4,000 people saw the commercial, and it completely revolutionized both television and advertising. Other businesses like Procter & Gamble, General Mills, and Sun Oil Company (who eventually became Mobil) soon followed suit. From there, there was no going back. Our favorite shows were going to be interrupted by commercials for the rest of time.


Do you have ten seconds? Watch the world's first television commercial!


What Are Sponsored Programs?

Television took a brief hiatus during World War II. After the fighting stopped, the amount of households that had televisions shot up to over 33%. With so many viewers, companies began advertising through sponsored programs. This is when a brand or agency aligns with a television show either through product placement, licensing, or a fully-integrated partnership.

Coca Cola Source:

The first show sponsored by a brand aired on NBC in 1946 and was called Geographically Speaking. It was sponsored by Bristol-Myers Squibb, a pharmaceutical company located in New York. The show only lasted for six weeks, but the momentum for sponsored programming really picked up speed in the decade that followed. People were tuning in regularly to watch popular shows like "Howdy Doody" and "The Lone Ranger." Coca-Cola, Cover Girl, Pillsbury, and Marlboro are some of the brands that would be introduced during these shows. Some of the companies even made it into the names of the programs, such as The Colgate Comedy Hour and Kraft Television Theatre.

Howdy Doody Source:

At the same time, these programs were also advertising on lunch boxes and a variety of other promotional products. People had more money in their pocket and the Baby Boom was sweeping the nation. Kids and adults alike were sitting in front of the television and products featuring these programs were flying off the shelves. This one-two punch of branding on items and TV meant a ridiculous amount of exposure for these companies and shows. Advertising was everywhere, just as it is today.

See one of the sponsor spots for Kenner Toys, the company behind Play-Doh and Easy-Bake Oven!


The Golden Age of Commercials: The 1960s

Commercials may have been around in the 50s, but it was really the 60s through 90s where they had their glory years. Much of this is due to a significant change in the way advertising was done. There was a boom of creativity, humor, and music. Not to mention, more than one commercial could air during any given show. If that wasn't enough, television was now in color which meant the sky was the limit in what could be created.

Amc ad

Before then, black-and-white sponsored programs left all the power in one advertiser's hands. A single brand was paying for the program to run, and as a result, had creative control of the content. Imagine if AMC's "The Walking Dead" wasn't allowed to kill off their characters since the show was sponsored by Life cereal. It was a nightmare for the programs before the 1960s.

Sylvester "Pat" Weaver, an executive at NBC, turned things around by putting the programs in the hands of the networks rather than the sponsors. Advertisers could buy the rights to certain blocks of time during the shows, but couldn't touch the content. This is more commonly referred to as "The Magazine Concept" since it allowed more than one brand to advertise at a time, much like they did in magazines. Weaver used this model for TV shows like "The Tonight Show" and "Today." It was a much more cost-effective way for advertisers to reach the masses. In turn, the shows had creative freedom and didn't have to worry about limitations set forth by the sponsors.

As a result, commercials really found their groove in the 60s. People were actually starting to look forward to watching the ads. According to The Paley Center for Media, the major broadcast channels at the time, NBC, CBS, and ABC, were drawing huge audiences and making a lot of money from advertisers in the process. It doesn't hurt that the commercials were entertaining and jingles were in the mainstream. Oscar Meyer, Rice-a-Roni, Alka Seltzer, and many other brands were producing earworms that stuck in America's minds and hearts.

The Sixties were all about self-expression. Check out one of the most iconic commercials of the era!

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Commercials are the lifeblood of television. There are some that are incredible 30-second works of art. A lot of advertising is very funny and compelling and people respond to that.

– David Bushman, Curator at The Paley Center for Media

Rated PG: The World of Advertising in the 70s

The momentum was in place and commercials started getting even bolder than ever before. In fact, they got so bold that for a short time The Flintstones were shown smoking in ads for Winston cigarettes. Talk about a yabba-dabba-don't. Luckily, The Public Health Cigarette Smoking Act banned cigarette ads on TV and radio at the beginning of the decade. The Flintstones were free to move on to bigger and better things, like selling Pebbles cereal.

Flinstones cigarette Source:

It obviously wasn't a good idea to use beloved children's characters to sell nicotine. Other brands in the 70s were more aware of the way they were presenting their products and tried to appeal to a very targeted audience. Tootsie Roll used a menagerie of animated characters like Mr. Owl and Mr. Turtle to appeal to kids, Coca-Cola reached out directly to the flower generation with a young community singing "I'd Like to Teach the World to Sing," and Folgers featured married couples in suburbia who needed a good cup of joe.

Fruity Pebbles Source:

The 70s were a time of experimenting with what sold and trying to market products to the right audiences. The ads that stood the test of time seemed to resonate with people on a personal level and spoke directly to their experiences.

Fruity pebbles Source:
Did you know?

Many other cartoon characters have appeared in commercials, including The Jetsons, Looney Tunes, Tom & Jerry, and The Powerpuff Girls.

They Could Go All the Way!: A Brief History of Super Bowl Ads

The time between the end of the 70s and 80s was a big time in the history of commercials. The very first Super Bowl commercials came on screen, and ever since, it has been tradition to unleash the best ads during football's biggest game.

Coca Cola Source:

One of the most memorable Super Bowl commercials of all time was for Coca-Cola and featured Mean Joe Greene, an intimidating defenseman for the Pittsburgh Steelers. In the ad, Greene tosses his jersey to a young boy after he steals his bottle of Coke.

It was 1979 when the ad aired and it was monumental for a number of reasons. According to Bernice Kanner, author of The 100 Best TV Commercials and Why They Worked, the Civil Rights Movement was still fresh, and fans were more likely to approach Greene after the commercial aired. The ad showed just how important it is to never judge a book by their cover. The commercial also didn't overpromise anything more than the good taste of Coke. As Kanner puts it: "It recognized that Coke is only a soft drink; it won't change the world or heal Mean Joe's injury, but it can – and did – restore his spirit and smile." It could have been that goodwill that drove the Steelers to emerge victorious that year as Super Bowl champions!

We still tune in once a year to watch the commercials during the Super Bowl. In fact, Super Bowl 50 in 2016 was one of the biggest television events of all time and featured a number of memorable commercials. If a brand wanted to advertise during the telecast, they had to pay roughly $5 million for a 30-second segment. It just goes to show how influential a Super Bowl spot is for advertisers.

Check out Coca-Cola's iconic Mean Joe Greene commercial!

Did you know?

The 10-year-old boy in the Mean Joe Greene commercial was so in awe that he kept flubbing his lines. Greene had to consume about eighteen Cokes before they finally got the shot right.

Pop Culture Powerhouses: Commercials in the 80s and 90s

Going forward into the 80s and 90s, there was freedom for advertisers to be creative and tell a story, while still being mindful of their audiences. Big name directors like Ridley Scott and David Lynch were recruited to use their love of storytelling in commercials. This led to memorable moments in television advertising, such as Apple's "1984" ad, which was directed by Scott and is largely considered to be the greatest commercial of all time.

Apple Source:

In the commercial, a woman fights against a dystopian society's "Unification of Thoughts." A giant man on a screen is brainwashing the community into settling for a certain way of life. The woman defiantly uses a giant hammer to break the screen and cause people to Think Different, a slogan still used by Apple to this day.

Apple's commercial is one of many in the 80s that relied on storytelling. Coors Light had success with their "At the Silver Bullet" ads, McDonald's had a fun ad showing a cute girl at her piano recital, and Michael J. Fox broke the quietness at a university library in his pursuit of a Diet Pepsi.

By the 90s, commercials were picking and choosing elements from the decades before. They were using jingles in ads for Baby Bottle Pop, Wonderball, and Bagel Bites. Popular cartoon characters were promoting products, in this case The Simpsons for Butterfingers. Finally, the same storytelling that was found in the 80s was present in ads like the one featuring bad boy Brad Pitt for Levi Jeans. Of course, with the rise of TiVo in 1999, the world of commercials was starting to change. According to a study by Duke University, about 95% of the population was still watching television live. Commercials were still hanging on strong, though their heyday was coming to an end.

Watch a moment of television history: Apple's iconic "1984" ad directed by Ridley Scott.


Back to Your Regular Scheduled Programming

These days you'll still see commercials on television, but they are nowhere near as powerful as they were in past decades. Much of this is due to the rise of streaming platforms like Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime. You can watch every season of "Breaking Bad" without worrying about commercial interruptions, especially if you pay for the ad-free subscription on Hulu like 50% of the population. In this digital world, most of us are quick to pay extra or hit "skip this ad" whenever possible.

That isn't to say commercials aren't still making waves with the general public. There's no denying that commercials can be provocative, humorous, heartwarming, and thought-provoking if done right. Media owners collected $197 billion in net advertising revenue in 2017, and it doesn't look like there's plans to stop any time soon.

Stats for Success

Stats 1 icon

A 30-minute program has about eight minutes of commercial time.

Stats 2 icon

The average viewer spends about 15 minutes out of every hour just watching ads.

Stats 3 icon

More than 50% of television ads are 30 seconds long.

Stats 4 icon

National TV commercials cost around $8,000 on average.

Alyssa Mertes

Alyssa Mertes

Alyssa is the Lead Copywriter at Quality Logo Products. As a promo expert, she's uncovered the world's first custom tote bag, interviewed the guy behind rock band ACDC's logo, and had a piece published by the Advertising Specialty Institute, a leader in the promotional products industry.


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