On July 1st 1941, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), the powers that be in US television, authorised commercial television. At around 2pm that day, luxury watchmaker Bulova broadcast the first ever television advert (legally, at least). This modest 10-second spot during a prominent baseball fixture was a watershed moment for advertising, allowing advertisers to incorporate the visuals of print advertising with the audio elements of radio. The popularity, frequency and creativity of TV ads has increased throughout the following decades, as has the budgets involved. Here are some of TV’s the most historically significant ads, beginning with a certain 1940s watch…
The most expensive TV advert ever produced: Chanel No. 5 (2004)
Whilst the TV infomercial has been long established, and product placement in film has become so ubiquitous it often passes viewers by, Baz Luhrmann’s ‘No. 5 the Film’, produced for Chanel No. 5 perfume, was something larger and grander. Whilst evocative, melodramatic adverts have become almost synonymous with the fragrance industry, this was far bigger and grander than any similar campaign which had preceded it. Starring the world-famous Nicole Kidman, and complete with glitzy visual effects, the use of a score by Claude Debussy, and a musical score, this signaled the moment when TV advertising used genuine cinematic grandeur as the primary basis for promoting a product.
The first ever TV advert: Bulova (1941)
“America runs on Bulova time”. A flickering outline of the United States, with a Bulova clockface superimposed stands on the screen, with the simple but powerful message read aloud over it. The spot cost Bulova just $9 to air – $4 for airtime, and $5 for ‘station charges’. Although the first airing is estimated to have been viewed by a few thousand people (at best), far less than usually heard Bulova’s influential radio commercials, it was a watershed moment in advertising, and the advert was fittingly produced for Bulova, one of the companies who had been pioneers of radio advertising. Its visuals may have been shaky, but its slogan, like the TV advert’s influence, was timeless.
The first TV advert for a political campaign: Eisenhower Campaign (1952)
Whilst TV advertising has been most prominently used in persuading people to buy a product or service, political advertising has used manipulation (of varying subtlety) to convince voters to buy into a party, leader and sometimes, even, a particular policy. Whilst the first political advert of Eisenhower’s campaign was technically the opening installment of ‘Eisenhower Answers America’ (essentially a short, staged debate), the more significant TV commercial of this campaign was the superb ‘I Like Ike’, which used a catchy ditty and entertaining cartoon to appear to a different, and perhaps larger demographic than its more serious predecessor. The savvy campaign helped the presidential hopeful’s chances, and he was elected for the first of his terms in office.
The first TV advert using entirely user-generated content: Coca-Cola, ‘This is AHH’ (2014)
Love them or loathe them, Coca-Cola’s TV advertising has been monumentally successful (ignoring the Bill Cosby-led ‘New Coke’ commercials), and whilst their Christmas TV campaigns are their most memorable, Coke’s new ‘This is AHH’ ad – produced by Wieden + Kennedy, which premiered this month – has taken an exciting new step. Using only fan submissions to depict the refreshing taste of their best-selling beverage, the advert uses a mixture of animation and live-action footage to create a varied collage. Using content from the public may well become a popular route for brands like Coca-Cola who are keen to shake off their ‘big business’ image.
The TV ad campaign which led to a full-length film: Nike, Air Jordan (1993)
Whilst the 1996 comedy film ‘Space Jam’ was more fun than fantastic, its place in advertising history is extremely significant. Whilst the ad did the usual job of product promotion (in this case, some rather striking ‘90s trainers), its use of entertainment and incorporation of an existing TV franchise (Looney Tunes) to boost sales led to Nike adapting a film from the commercial, and from its ‘plot’ (I use the term slightly loosely). Both advert and film helped boost sales, and ‘Space Jam’ related merchandise also boomed. One of Nike’s biggest successes, and one which significantly took place on multiple platforms.
The TV advert which launched a new sporting era: Sky, ‘Whole New Ball Game’ (1992)
Launching a new product or range is one thing, but trying to advertise a multi-million pound rebrand of the national game is quite another. As the English First Division became the FA Premier League, Sky Sports advertised their coverage of this fledgling entity. Using artistic, black-and-white photography, showing an understanding of supporter emotion, and a dramatic, star-studded montage, it was the perfect way to advertise the glitz, glamour and modernity of a sport which has brought BSkyB an enormous amount of success.
Ever since Bulova’s wonderfully simple 10-second commercial first appeared on TV screens, the art of TV advertising has been honed by developing and pushing the elements which the medium allows – visual creativity, audio capacity, animation, and the ability to make a product, a star, or a testimonial more engaging to the viewer. From the film success that developed from Nike mixing live-action with animation, to the narrative-driven Chanel No. 5 commercial, and most recently Coca-Cola’s use of the public’s creative ideas and artistic talent, TV advertising is full of significant milestones, and more are surely to come.