Promo University

The History of TV Commercials: From Super Bowl Ads to Funny Ads We Still Love Watching

Alyssa Mertes

Published: May 06th, 2021

Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, and other streaming sites have totally spoiled us since we can skip over the commercials entirely. Back in the day, however, these ads were often the best part of an afternoon in front of the TV. We sang along to the jingles, begged our parents for the newest toys, and stared at the infomercials at 2 o'clock in the morning.

The glory days of commercials may be behind us, but that doesn't mean they haven't influenced the way we advertise. Don't change the channel as we dive into the full history of TV advertisements!

Quote

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

History of Television Advertising Timeline

The first television commercial made its debut 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: http://homeoftvnostalgia.wixsite.com

    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: https://www.nytimes.com

    The 34th president of the United States, Dwight D. Eisenhower, had massive success with TV ads for his campaign. 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: https://clickamericana.com

    Mr. Potato Head became the first toy to ever be promoted on a TV commercial. The original was a real potato with "piece packets," but people must have loved these vegetables. Nearly 2 million Mr. Potato Heads sold in the first year alone!

  • 1960s

    Oscar Mayer Jingles Source: https://www.youtube.com

    Catchy jingles were extremely popular with advertisers throughout this decade. One of the most notable comes from Oscar Mayer and is about the joys of being a wiener.

  • 1965

    Colored TV ad Source: https://www.youtube.com

    A company named RCA released the first ad for colored TV. It took a while for every household to switch from black and white, but near the end of the decade, more than 2 million people were watching their shows in color.

  • 1971

    Cigarette Smoking Ad Source: https://www.youtube.com

    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: https://www.whatsonweibo.com

    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: https://people.com

    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: https://www.adweek.com

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

  • 1984

    Apple ad Source: https://www.cultofmac.com

    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: http://www.canadianwhisky.org

    Seagram became the first liquor brand to advertise on TV when they released a commercial for Crown Royal. Before then, alcoholic drinks were banned from being promoted on television or radio.

  • 1997

    Guinness Book of World Records Source: https://www.space.com

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

  • 2006

    Dove ad Source: https://vimeo.com

    Dove made a statement about beauty ideals 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: http://www.tv.com

    Hulu changed the way we watch advertisements. Viewers 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: https://www.youtube.com

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

  • 2016

    LinkedIn Source: https://www.linkedin.com

    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: https://www.tubefilter.com

    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.

  • 2020

    Netflix

    44% of people claim that they watch less live TV as the result of streaming services like Netflix and Hulu. This has caused a decline in commercial advertising as people don't want to be interrupted by ads.

What Was the Very First TV Commercial?

The world's first television commercial aired on July 1, 1941 during a game between the Brooklyn Dodgers and the Philadelphia Phillies. The ad was for Bulova Watches, a company still in operation today. It lasted for only 10 seconds and aired on a local channel in New York called WNBT.

This commercial cost somewhere between $4 and $9 to create, and with only 1% of U.S. homes having a TV set at the time, it didn't necessarily mean anything big for sales. Still, close to 4,000 people watched the commercial when it first aired, completely revolutionizing the future of advertising.

Bulova https://www.thevintagenews.com/

Soon enough, other brands like Procter & Gamble, General Mills, and Sun Oil Company (who eventually became Mobil) made their own commercials. There was no going back. Our favorite shows were going to be interrupted by commercials for the next few decades!

Do you have ten seconds? Watch the world's first TV commercial in this video!

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What Are Sponsored Programs?

After World War II, the amount of households that had televisions shot up to over 33%. Companies began advertising through sponsored programs, which is when a brand or agency aligns with a TV show through product placement, licensing, or a fully-integrated partnership.

The first show to be sponsored was called "Geographically Speaking," airing on NBC in 1946. The show was sponsored by Bristol-Myers Squibb, a pharmaceutical company located in New York. It lasted only for 6 weeks, but the momentum for sponsored programming really picked up speed in the decade that followed.

Coca Cola Source: https://www.tvobscurities.com

Viewers were tuning in regularly to watch popular shows like Howdy Doody and The Lone Ranger. Coca-Cola, Cover Girl, Pillsbury, and Marlboro took advantage of this attention by being introduced before the shows started, or even in the middle of the program. Some companies even made it into the names of the shows, such as The Colgate Comedy Hour or Kraft Television Theatre.

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

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What Were TV Commercials Like in the 1960's?

By the 1960's, more than one commercial could air during any given show. This opened the door for more companies to take advantage of this marketing strategy. Plus, television was now in color which meant the sky was the limit in what could be created.

To see just how revolutionary commercials were in the 60s, you have to look at the sponsored programs in the past. All the power was in the advertiser's hands. Since they were paying for the advertisements during the shows, they had total 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 creative content!

Amc ad https://playout.tvnewscheck.com

In came Sylvester "Pat" Weaver, an executive at NBC. He gave creative control back to the networks, so advertisers could only buy the rights to certain blocks of time, but couldn't touch the content.

Weaver changed how TV advertising was done, and in turn, the state of commercials. 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 the ads on TV at that time.

The Sixties were all about self-expression. This video shows you one of the most iconic commercials of the era!

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Quote

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

What Were TV Commercials Like in the 1970's?

Commercials started getting bolder than ever before in the 70's. For instance, The Flintstones were shown smoking in ads for Winston cigarettes. Talk about a yabba-dabba-don't.

It obviously wasn't a good idea to use beloved children's characters to sell nicotine. This is why brands started thinking about how to cater to a wider 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 "I'd Like to Teach the World to Sing," and Alka Seltzer plop plopped and fizz fizzed for those with indigestion issues.

Flinstones cigarette Source: http://www.therobotspajamas.com

The 70's was 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.

When Did Super Bowl Commercials Start?

The very first Super Bowl commercial came out in 1967, and ever since it has been tradition to unleash the best ads during football’s biggest game. The first Super Bowl ad was only 30 seconds long and cost between $37,500 to $42,500 to make.

Coca Cola Source: digitaltrends.com

Super Bowl ads were really put on the map, however, in 1979 with the debut of Coca-Cola's Mean Joe Greene ad. Greene was an intimidating defenseman for the Pittsburgh Steelers, but he shows he has a heart of gold when he tosses his jersey to a young boy after he steals his bottle of Coke.

The Coca-Cola Mean Joe Greene commercial was monumental for a number of reasons:

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

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Did you know?

The 10-year-old boy in the Mean Joe Greene commercial was so in awe of the superstar that he kept flubbing his lines. Greene had to consume about 18 Cokes before they finally got the shot right.

Where Were Commercials Like in the 1980's?

Apple Source: cultofmac.com

By the 1980's, advertisers had the freedom to tell a story. Big name directors like Ridley Scott and David Lynch were recruited to create commercials. This led to memorable moments such as Apple's "1984" ad, which was directed by Scott and is largely considered to be one of the greatest commercials of all time.

The ad starts with a woman fighting 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 Source: cultofmac.com

Apple is only one brand that relied on telling a story to sell their product. 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.

YouTube has preserved TV history. Watch Apple's iconic "1984" ad, directed by Ridley Scott.

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Where Were Commercials Like in the 1990's?

Netflix youtube.com

The 90's was perhaps the last great decade for commercials, but it largely borrowed from the ads that came before it. There were jingles in ads for Baby Bottle Pop, Wonderball, and Bagel Bites. Popular cartoon characters were promoting products, such as "The Simpsons" for Butterfingers. Finally, storytelling was present in ads like the one featuring bad boy Brad Pitt for Levi Jeans.

It was the end of the golden years of TV commercials. Within the next few years, people were going to become uninterested in watching ads. Streaming was just around the corner.

Netflix youtube.com

What is the Purpose of TV Advertising?

Couple with remote

So why did we rely on TV advertising all these years? Did it actually work and transform sales or was it a waste of screen time?

The answer is it really depends. The true value of TV advertising comes from the pop culture impact. The memorable ones are seared into our brains and are talked about to this very day, whether it's in person or over social media.

The best TV ads tell a story, appeal to our emotions, or feature a fun song or laughable moment that we won't forget. It's really up to the advertiser to make sure they're creating that kind of commercial.

Couple with remote

What is the Future of TV Commercials?

Couple with remote

In this digital world, most of us are quick to pay extra or hit "skip this ad" whenever possible. This has been the downfall of the TV commercial, and it's hard to say where we go from here.

There's no denying that commercials can be provocative, humorous, heartwarming, and thought-provoking if done right. We might be streaming ad-free these days, but maybe there are a few more surprises yet for the future of TV advertising.

Couple with remote

Stats for Success

Stats 1 icon

A 30-minute live TV show has about eight minutes of commercials.

Stats 2 icon

The average viewer of live television 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.

The Bottom Line

A good commercial has the power to make us think and feel, even in this world of Netflix, Hulu, and Disney+. It was a powerful medium from the 60's to the 90's, and even to this day, the right TV ad can inspire conversations. Before you fast-forward to the show, remember how influential TV ads have been throughout history.

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.

References

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Beschloss, M. (2015, October 30). Eisenhower, an Unlikely Pioneer of TV Ads. Retrieved July 12, 2018, from https://www.nytimes.com/2015/11/01/upshot/eisenhower-an-unlikely-pioneer-of-tv-ads.html

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The Museum of Broadcasting. (2018). Weaver, Sylvester (Pat). Retrieved July 13, 2018, from http://www.museum.tv/eotv/weaversylve.htm

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