Research Updates of Fall 2009

Advertising In Time.

Victor-Antonio Ali

Early Television Advertising Research

Ready Camera one 11/13/09

Although the technology and theory of it had originally been conceived since the 1800s, and invented in the 1920’s, broadcasting’s new visual medium (television) didn’t emerge fully until 1934. This we know, but why did television progress in the way that it did? At this pinnacle moment, what decisions were made by broadcasting’s power houses and why did they adapt a commercialized system funded on the selling of company allotted air time? Long before the invention of television or radio, advertising has been a method of selling more than just a product; it’s been a form of selling an idea or a concept, implanting thought, consciousness, and more so implementing hegemony within the minds of the public. How come television had to follow in the footsteps of radio with advertising being such a key element in funding the medium? What sort of roles has the government played in advertising? Across the ages, what was the face of advertising, and how did it evolve? This paper will hopefully cover these subjects along with the staying power of television advertising. Lastly, this paper also hopes to shed light on, evidence of experimentation or invention within television advertising calling upon the experimental commercials themselves as archival history within the medium.

To truly understand the advertising broadcast model one would have to go back to a time period before television had been invented,  one would have to delve into the beginning of radio, the funding issues that came with the broadcasting of air waves, and the steps taken to build a substantial money making enterprise.  Unfortunately this topic in its self is alone a subject of much investigation, and we must move quickly past it. Broadcasting’s power for consumerism was beyond astonishing it was an ephemeral goldmine that could not be ignored.

“The vision of eager consumers gathered around this remarkable appliance was irresistible to potential sponsors. The expansion of commercial broadcasting came with such astonishing speed that by 1931 radio was an enormous industry, accounting for $36 million in time sales on the networks alone.” (MBC)

Here we can start to get a feel for advertisings potential power over the targeted consumers. Simply stated television had never actually been dreamt of as a singular entity separate from radio, the original visionaries saw television as a complimentary attribute to radio, much in the same way sound had been anticipated for the early moving pictures, and seen only as a missing element of the medium. Advertising as a business had exploded and radio’s power houses were seeing heavily to the evolution of broadcasting as a medium, specifically NBC’s parent company RCA (Radio Corporation of America) played a huge investment role in the propagation of television systems. For them it was beyond the logical and natural path for television to adapt to the radio system; it was just good tactful business. It was a brain child, and it was planned.

Money was the motivating factor for broadcasting and advertising, and in its founding years television had two major broadcasting networks that held the majority of the industry’s power, with a third one quickly trailing behind. NBC (National Broadcasting Company) has been fabled the strongest with the parent support of RCA. CBS (Colombia Broadcasting System) immediately followed, owned by William S. Paley who had originally acquired his company through his father’s money. His original intention had not been to immerse his resources in the business, but after the expansion of the family business through advertising, discovered his niche.  Finally trailing behind came ABC which came into existence only after the FCC had broken up the ownership of NBC’s Red and Blue station, and the weaker one (blue) becoming ABC.

With out advertising the cost of running a station was very difficult to cover. Not until April 19th 1948 did ABC’s television network air, due to costs in funding “In 1948 TV station costs $1,000,000 to construct and place into operation” ( an obviously large amount even for todays costs. Beyond the cost of producing programming for a show, there are many other costs in running a station.

“Normal station expenses are usually categorized and budgeted under the four headings of; programming, engineering, sales, and general/administrative. Normally, the largest single operating cost of any station is for salaries and wages including perks and benefits, social security, and insurance costs… …The program department usually is the most expensive station unit in terms of salaries.” (Broadcast Management)

As one can see paying the paycheck is probably the most expensive cost in running a station, not just in the salaries of the high profile actors and such but everybody involved has to make an earning worth living off of. “Broadcasting in America” states that “… television program department’s expenses rise to 43 percent of the total broadcasting costs.” The table on page 444 of “American Broadcasting” states that in 1950 the total cost of one program episode was $6,920; converting this to the buying power of today’s dollar is approximately $62,170.58. The overall economy of the United States, had just gone through The Great Depression and any expectation for pay TV, or a community funded programming system was way out of the question. Not only were these prices out of reach for the common public populace, but the medium was relatively new and unfamiliar, and nobody in their right mind would have made the sort of monetary commitments we do today with cable, satellite, and TiVo. The industry had been too volatile and sporadic before the late 1940s and, an industry not yet worthy of our personal financial faith. Enter Corporate America with its inflated spending and its noble funding gestures. Our government had already created a consumer oriented system to rescue us from economic devastation, why not also rely on them to single handedly fit the bill for our new source of entertainment. And of course they would be more than happy to pay. 1948 has been credited for being the pivotal point in which the “Golden Age” of television started, funny how this is also the year credited for the beginning of practical commercial television. All the essential information points to these costs and figures being finite and industry standard, but one can’t help but wonder; what is the definitive process which inflates the numbers so greatly? Where does the money ultimately land? Is it spread evenly across the different stages of production or does it rest solely in the pockets of a single individual? Once again though, this would set us back to the beginning of radio transmissions and earlier time periods. One could question the source: Wondering if it’s not the company (FCC) which distributes and regulates the very channels/frequencies that are broadcasted over.

The government’s involvement with the advertising and broadcasting medum has never been too detached, from direct control and regulation by means of the FCC (Federal Communications Commission), The Advertising Council/PSA’s and even directly influencing the public’s voting decisions through advertising and campaigning. The FCC was created by the government to regulate and monitor the use of wire and radio communications, and has done so since it was originally formed; it also regulates television content including but not limited to advertising. In one research report titled “The Market for Television Advertising” conducted by the FCC they stated

“We have emphasized that the members of a television audience are not generally homogeneous. The audience of a given program may be thought of as one product produced with several distinguishing characteristics.”

With this sort of perspective on the human population it’s no wonder the moral standards of those who run the FCC have been constantly questioned. No need to even mention the early scandals. Another form of advertising involvement the government has had was the forming of the advertising council.

“The war Advertising Council was established in March 1942 … in support of the home-front propaganda effort. After World War II the council reorganized, cut its ties with the Office of War information, and dropped the word war, although it still maintains it’s close connections with both the executive office and with congress, formally it is independent.” (PPSAT)

Part of the Advertising Council’s existence is to maintain a control and organization over public service announcements that directly deal with problems that they believe have risen in our society. They keep a running network with government agencies, advertising companies, networks, patron businesses, and nonprofit organizations that fit into their silent mold. Often they work with these groups to quietly shut out forces that seem to be a menace to the “American”[1] public, which they achieve either through advertising mediums or stifling/villainizng a voice or simply impeding the voice of a minority group. Here is a good example of just that.

“Broadcasters and advertisers had first been drafted into the fight against the red influence in 1950 when a vigilante group published a list of 151 famous artists alleged to be politically ‘embarrassing.’ Networks and sponsors were obliged to act. But even they soon found the arbitrary, star-chamber nature of blacklists too unsavory to acknowledge, let alone defend. So they gladly tossed this hot potato to Madison Avenue, which, in addition to its other duties, now gave cover and deniability to networks and sponsors, becoming a kind of shadow judiciary that decided who could work in television and who couldn’t.” (John McDonough)

The powerful force of advertising quickly caught on and in 1952 the first presidential television ads were launched, tugging on “American” heart strings by bringing up recent memories of World War II, “Political spots in the 1950s were rudimentary. Political spots often took on the form of footage from press conferences, or testimonials from prominent citizens. Many were the ‘Talking head’ variety in which the candidate looked straight into the camera and spoke for thirty to sixty seconds without any editing.” (Air Wars). This is only a superficial look at the government’s involvement, the true nature of such agencies such as The Advertising Council are overly obfuscated to discover more than that which they want us to know. Advertising has been a powerful tool for more than just government purposes. Beyond government advertising, and the thing it has been used for the most, the thing advertising came into existence for, was product placement and pushing. Advertising sold many consumers many house hold products.

Across the early time span of television history advertising has evolved taking on many facets and faces. “In the field of marketing, experts frequently distinguish between advertising (as a means to inform the public) and promotion (a means of persuasion.) In broadcasting, this distinction is not clearly maintained” (SBCP). In the 1940s advertising was incorporated into the programming, either as highlighted objects within the programming, or segments allotted to the specific product or company being marketed. “Many large companies were sole sponsors of complete shows- Philco Playhouse, Texaco Variety Hour, Westinghouse Theater, and Kraft Theater. Most television programs were done live on multicamera or projected on 16mm” (Jon J. Conrad). The cost of production was high.

“With the advent of commercial television in 1946, there was considerable sentiment within the networks that program creation and execution would best be left in their hands, although the personnel demands and expense of video production made it impossible for any network to produce all its programming in-house. Thus, as in radio, agencies assumed a major role in the evolution of the television schedule.” (MBC)

Because the prices were so extravagant, it was hard to pull away from being controlled by a sponsor.

In the 1950s television became aesthetically obsessed, it was no longer about the product, but about the appearance of the product, and of the commercial. Commercials looked to modern art, pop art and many other aesthetics to improve the visual quality of their spots. The mentality went from selling objects to improve life and simplify, to improve the self, and the image one created along with it. It used stunning images and influential role models that the “American” public had become trained to adore and look up to, such as Liz Taylor, President Eisenhower, Elvis, and Disneyland. The following is a great example of how this can be observed in the era’s advertising.

”A 1954 commercial titled ‘Family Argument’, pits the typical ‘American’ dad against the wiles of his nearest and dearest. The family gathers for a council of war around the consol-model TV in a suburban living room. Junior is adamant, sis seductive, and even Martha is convinced that the time as come to put ‘Jezebel’ out to pasture. So they all go, to pick out a new automobile that becomes a part of the family unit. This becomes a statement about the family status and its collective self-image…” (As Seen on TV) .

Seeing the Family’s reliance on self identification, and the yearning  desire for the new, shows how image played a large role in the selling of product, and making the public believe they needed this to be happy was becoming the cornerstone of advertising.

In the 1960s advertising experienced an astonishing growth more so economically than substantially, the advertising agencies took a step back stage from the lime light and instead hid in the anonymous back drop playing puppet masters to the consumers that had rapidly grown accustomed to the spending habits of the new economy.  John McDonough called it a historic combination of luck and upheaval.

“But now in 1960, here were their children, born in the ’20s and ’30s, raising their own kids in freshly built suburbs and buying washing machines, color TVs and long-and-low cars visualized as jet fighters on wheels.” (John)

The Madison Avenue advertiser no longer created a product anyone could actually buy. Instead he created a mental image by which consumer “America” measured each other “creating national social conformity; the ad man was an engineer of conformity who quietly sorted consumers according to demographic and psycho-graphic markers to which it was they conformed.” John also states that “television growth had pushed ad agency billings from $1.3 billion in 1950 to $6 billion in 1960. The average cost of a 30-second spot in network evening programming was about $18,200, though most advertisers still used 60-second commercials ”. The names of many parent companies such as Ruthrauff & Ryan, Benton & Bowles or Lennen & Newell, were unknown to the major public, and what happened behind the scenes stayed behind the scenes. In the 60s there was a lot of emergence of “Conspiracy theories.” Madison Avenue played upon the stereotypes born from this and used it as a method to become larger than life, smarter and more sly than anything we could possibly fathom. They also coined advertising clichés that have still stuck around to this day, “Three out of four doctors agree”; “Styling, power, performance”; “Scientific tests prove”; and our lasting favorite “Space age technology”.

The conscious memory of these advertising clichés in the minds of children-now-adults born twenty years after their original conception, lends a giant helping hand to discussion of television advertising’s staying power, to this day television ads still try to project product consumption as a betterment for the self, and even more so have made certain products standards by which we measure ourselves and each other by. Today these standards have gone beyond product assimilation, but through the years of advertisement even self image and our concepts of beauty have transformed into a disfigured skeleton. The biggest proof of its staying power though comes from the blatant observation that television commercials are still around today, and have even infiltrated their way into the empty waiting time of film viewing before a film starts when at a movie theatre.

There was a huge rise in television advertising experimentation that rose up in the 1950s and went on through to the 1960s. Television called upon the powers of numerous visual art movements and although although often bluntly putting it down, it depended on the arts greatly. Andy Warhol introduced his skills as a pop artist, while abstract expressionism was seen within advertisement animations. “Given their recognition in the world of modern art, the abstract animated commercials might even be the missing link between abstract expressionism and its successor, pop art.” (TV by Design) The probable reason for this coming about was most likely because Advertisers came to the realization that mass produced products had become such standard objects of everyday life, there was no distinction between brands, just simply products.

Finally the culmination of all this archival history of Advertising boils down to this. The main sustaining reason why Television progressed the way it did falling into the same business model of Advertising as its forefather Radio, was because the original powerhouses had already dreamt it would be this way before the actual invention of Television; and at the point of execution the inflated numbers it cost were way out of the pocket rage of the general population. This is why Corporate funding and Advertising was such a key element to the propagation of Television. The government played a bunch of roles when it came to advertising, such as regulating the air waves, filtering content, and analyzing data to building business models through the founding of the FCC, The building of the Advertising council during war times to promote public service announcements along with other hidden agendas, such as hegemonic consciousness seen in the public during the Red Scare, and lastly direct interaction through campaigning for presidential elections. Across the ages advertising evolved from the blunt, haphazard total domination of programming by sponsor seen in the 40s, to a more skilled artistic aesthetic insemination planned from the 50s, and then combined in the 60s with a more deceptive psychological approach to consumer control. The staying power of Television advertising can be seen today through its long lasting stream of conscious memory, and the after effects of the age’s natural progression of advertisement. And lastly the experimentation seen within the medium can be best observed during the aesthetic periods of the 1950s and 1960s. This has been a brief overview of Advertising Across the Ages, what is done with this information is now up to…

[1] The term “American” is in quotations because of its misuse of meaning, anybody living within the “America’s” is an “American”