television and advertising -- 5/14/21

Today's selection -- from The Box: An Oral History of Television, 1920-1961 by Jeff Kisseloff. The airways were supposed be free, but television advertising appeared almost immediately:

"Had he been president of NBC instead of the United States, Calvin Coolidge's major con­tribution to Bartlett's Familiar Quotations might have been slightly altered to read, 'The busi­ness of television is business,' and he would have been right. It has been that way ever since Bulova paid nine dollars in time charges for the first commercial back in 1941. The system really goes back to the fall of 1922 when AT&T, which already owned several stations, made a startling announcement that its flagship station, WEAF in New York, would operate in effect like a phone booth. AT&T would provide no programming. Instead, customers could come in, and for a fee based on the amount of time they wanted to purchase, air any message of their choosing. AT&T was proposing commercial broadcasting.

"Many responsible people were scandalized by the idea that the airwaves could be used for commercial gain. A bill was introduced in Congress to ban advertising on radio. Herbert Hoover, then head of the Federal Radio Commission, declared, 'The reader of a newspaper has an option whether he will read or not, but if a speech by the president is to be used as the meat in a sandwich of two patent medicine advertisements, there will be no radio left.'

"Nevertheless, AT&T went ahead. WEAF's first commercial program was a sales pitch by a Mr. Blackwell for an apartment complex in Queens, New York. The ten-minute pitch cost the company fifty dollars and drew a moderate response. What really blew the lid off the kettle was a ten-minute talk a few months later, delivered by the glamorous Marion Davies. Her lecture, 'How I Make Up for the Movies,' was done for Mineralava soap. She closed by inviting listeners to write in for a free autographed picture. Over 100,000 requests poured into the station. Commercial radio was here to stay. Soon, the music of the Ipana Troubadours and the A&P Gypsies dominated the airwaves in shows produced and directed by the advertising agencies, not the networks.

"The Lucky Strike Orchestra was the brainchild of George Washington Hill, the legendary president of the American Tobacco Company, and a seminal figure in the history of commer­cial broadcasting. The flamboyant Hill drove a Cadillac festooned with enlargements of the Lucky Strike package, chainsmoked Luckies despite a wracking cough, and insisted that all his employees smoke them, too.

"Hill, along with Procter & Gamble, was one of the first big-time advertisers to use radio.

"He knew instinctively how to program for a mass market. He believed the upbeat music played by the Lucky Strike Orchestra could help America dance its way out of the Depres­sion. Hill also broke through the early restrictions on low-class advertising with his classic line for Cremo cigars, 'There's no spit in Cremo!' on the CBS network. Hill was a proponent of loud, obnoxious, repetitive advertising. His 'Lucky Strike has gone to war!' ads, aired during the early stages of World War II, were one of the great success stories in advertising history. Hill depended mostly on his own instinct for his ad campaigns, but with the help of pioneering public relations man Edward Bernays, a nephew of Sigmund Freud, he was also an early proponent of employing psychoanalytic theory to develop commercial and market­ing strategies.

"When the Federal Communications Commission approved commercial broadcasting for television in 1941, network executives figured the best way to hook big advertisers was to offer them the same deal they got in radio. After the war, viewers could choose from familiar sounding programs, 'The Kraft Music Hall,' 'The Borden Show,' 'The Kelvinator Kitchen,' or the 'Gillette Cavalcade of Sports.' There were exceptions. William Paley, tired of CBS ra­dio losing its stars to NBC, decided the best way CBS could get a competitive edge was to control at least some of its own programming. By owning its own shows, the network could tie the shows and their stars into long-term contracts. He set up a program department, headed by Hubbell Robinson and Harry Ommerle. Robinson hired three of the most gifted writers in the business, Cy Howard, Harry Ackerman, and Goodman Ace, to create programs for CBS radio. Their efforts had their impact on CBS television, too. For example, it was Ac­kerman who found Lucille Ball performing at the Stork Club and signed her with CBS.

"For the most part, however, the old radio system ruled TV through the mid-fifties, which also meant a continuation of program practices so successful in radio: programming was aimed toward the lowest common denominator; sponsors combed through scripts to delete what they considered to be offending words or characterizations; controversy, either in deal­ing with serious social issues or simply in using black actors, was frowned upon. The latter policy was conducted particularly with an eye toward appeasing Southern stations.

"Sponsors paid particular attention to anything they thought would boost the competition.

"This often went to ridiculous extremes. Westinghouse at first refused to allow 'Studio One' to broadcast an adaptation of Kipling's 'The Light That Failed,' believing that the show would reflect badly on their bulbs. As Worthington Miner pointed out in his memoirs, West­inghouse became so wound up over the light-bulb issue that it completely overlooked its sponsorship of a homosexual love story!

"Chevrolet wouldn't allow a pioneer on one of its shows to 'ford' a river, and Ford wouldn't allow a shot of the New York skyline on a program it sponsored because the Chrys­ler building was shown. Chrysler wouldn't allow Abraham Lincoln's name to be mentioned on a CBS show about the Civil War, while Mars Candy Company objected to a script in which a little girl was given a dollar to buy ice cream and cookies.

"On the 'Camel News Caravan,' in an interview with 'Lucky' Luciano, only the mob­ster's first name, Charles, could be used, so viewers would not confuse it with an ad for Lucky Strikes. The word 'lucky' seemed to pose a particular problem for American Tobacco's competitors. Scriptwriters regularly combed through thesaurus to dredge up synonyms like 'fortunate' or 'providential' whenever the forbidden 'L word' popped up. How bad could it get? This bad: even the word 'American' was proscribed on one show.

"Advertisers often pushed to get their products into scripts. Westinghouse, the sponsors of 'The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet,' preferred kitchen scenes, the better to show off the Nelsons' sparkling Westinghouse appliances. How Ozzie earned the money to pay for them nobody ever knew. Ozzie was always at home wearing a tie.

"Such overzealous behavior was rooted in the enormous profits generated by television exposure. The Hazel Bishop cosmetics company was a $50,000 annual business in 1950. After two years of television advertising, the company's annual sales topped $4.5 million."



Jeff Kisseloff


The Box: An Oral History of Television, 1920-1961


ReAnimus Press


2013, 1995 by Jeff Kisselof


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