History of TV Ads

Alyssa Mertes

Alyssa Mertes

Promo Expert

Some people fast-forward through commercials. The rest of us watch them, talk about them with friends, and hum their jingles whenever we need to be cheered up. In this lesson, we’ll learn all about the history of television ads!

It's hard to imagine a time when television didn't have commercials. For most of us, TV and commercials go together like highways and billboards, e-mail and spam, or peanut butter and jelly. There have always been organizations that need a little bit of our time to make their pitch. Before television, there were print ads, radio ads, and even door-to-door salespeople. Television, however, provided a way of combining the visual appeal of print ads, the catchy jingles of radio ads, and that "personal" touch of the door-to-door salesperson. And it all started with a single ad.

Ten Seconds that Changed Advertising Forever

The very first television ad appeared on July 1, 1941 during a baseball game on a local channel in New York. It was a ten-second commercial advertising Bulova watches and cost a mere four dollars, but it completely revolutionized both television and advertising.

After the overwhelming success of the Bulova advertisement, other advertisers began to jump on board this new media. Soon, businesses like Gimbel’s Department Store, Pan American World Airways, Firestone Tire, and Botany Worsted Mills were placing their own ads on television.

Once the United States entered World War II, however, television broadcasting ceased as the nation focused its resources on the war effort. But it resumed once the war was finished and, by 1948, many additional advertisers were using television spots to reach an expanding audience.

How quickly was the audience expanding? In 1948, less than one percent of U.S. homes had a television set; by 1952, nearly a third of all homes had a television set. Studies show that cities with television stations saw a marked drop in theater attendance, and even restaurants experienced a dip in business after eight o'clock. Television's spreading popularity merited the formation of the American Association of Advertising Agencies to regulate the accompanying ads.

The very first television ad appeared on July 1, 1941

Sponsored Programs

The 1950s brought about significant changes in television advertising. Companies began to sponsor entire programs (that directly or indirectly showcased their products). Kraft, Colgate, and General Electric were only a few of the companies that took advantage of this trend and sponsored their own shows. The content of these programs, of course, needed to meet with the direct approval of the sponsors, but this normally meant little more than the program not portraying the sponsor's product in a negative manner. However, some sponsors exercised far more control over their programs' content, such as when they would decide the winners of programs like "The $64,000 Question" and "Twenty-One."


By the 1960s, sponsored programs were going out of fashion, but a new model was already in place that would continue for decades to come. When "Meet the Press" was in danger of going off the air due to no company wanting to produce the show, NBC executive Sylvester "Pat" Weaver came up with a novel solution: NBC would produce the show itself and sell brief spots (during the program break) to various advertisers. This was a much more cost-effective way for advertisers to reach the masses. An hour-long program typically had nine minutes of advertising, with most commercials lasting between 30 and 60 seconds, meaning that a single program could have between nine and eighteen sponsors (instead of one advertiser covering the entire program cost).

Children Are Protected from Advertising, then Exposed to More Advertising than Ever Before

The 1970s opened with the banning of cigarette ads on television. By this point, the power of television advertising was clear and the ban came, in part, due to allegations that commercials were influencing minors to smoke. At one point, there were even commercials featuring Fred Flintstone endorsing Winston cigarettes. Networks opposed the change because the cigarette companies were a major source of ad revenue, but the ban held. Curiously, no similar ban was made against alcoholic beverages.

By the 1980s, children were safe from cigarette ads, but exposed to more advertisements than ever before for a variety of other products. Advertisements for toys, games, and breakfast cereal were nothing new, but with new regulations in place, toy manufacturers were now able to produce half-hour cartoon shows featuring their products. Masters of the Universe, the Care Bears, G.I. Joe, My Little Pony, Transformers, and a host of other toys were now marketed in half-hour programs that were, essentially, long-form commercials for the products (although unlike sponsored programs of the 1950s, these programs would also feature commercials for other products). Commercials also went big budget by hiring major directors (such as Ridley Scott for Apple Computers) and securing celebrity endorsements (from actors, sports figures, and musicians) for all manner of products.

A Commercial Without Program Interruptions

By the 1990s, there were major changes in television advertising. The typical hour-long program contained up to 19 minutes of advertising space, and audiences were eager for a way to enjoy their programs uninterrupted. The development of TiVo brought fresh outcry from advertisers due to its commercial-skipping capabilities. At the same time, infomercials increased in popularity. In many ways a purer form of sponsored programs, infomercials were half-hour programs exclusively focused on marketing a particular product, sometimes exhibiting production values as high as standard television programs.

The End of Television?

Advertising continues to grow and change. As more programs are simultaneously broadcast on the Internet and through standard television stations, commercials are shown on both media. Even video content that's exclusively available through the Internet is often sponsored by advertisers, meaning that, even if television should one day become obsolete, there will still be commercials.

How could anyone ever think that commercials would fade from existence? They’ve been going strong ever since the first one aired on TV in 1941! Of course, as much as they’ve changed over time, it’s hard to say what the commercial of the future will look like. We're hoping for twenty-four hours of non-stop Bubbavision, but only time will tell!