A History Of TV Advertising


Image by Medhi

The first television advert ever to be screened happened on July 1st 1941 in the USA and was a 20-second advert for Bulova watches, broadcast on New York’s WNBT channel just before a major baseball game.

Bulova paid $9 for the advert which accounting for inflation is roughly the equivalent of paying £300 today – not quite the same as the rumoured £250,000 that many advertisers paid for a 30-second slot on the 2010 Britain’s Got Talent! So just how did advertising get so expensive, and has anything really changed over the decades except the price?

Surprisingly, the UK had to wait a very lengthy 14 years to follow in the footsteps of the Americans and screen TV adverts, with the first one ever shown being an advert for Gibbs SR toothpaste on ITV on the 22nd September 1955. Before this, the only television service in the UK was the BBC whose money comes from TV licences – they don’t show any adverts at all, even today. The same day that ITV screened their advert, BBC Radio killed off Grace Archer, a leading character in their radio soap opera The Archers, stealing the next day’s newspaper headlines in what was perhaps a jealous attempt to remain TV’s ‘big player’.

When they first came about, people were so un-used to seeing adverts on TV that many programmes, especially ones for children, were actually forced to announce at times that there would be adverts (e.g. “We’ll be back after these messages…” and “…now back to our programme”) so that people knew what was an advert and what was a programme. In many modern television programmes you would be hard pushed to decipher advertising from programme content (she says tapping away on her Apple iPad, taking a delicious sip of ice cold refreshing Coca Cola. *Winks to camera)

For many decades only large companies could afford to produce adverts but then along came the early nineties when everyone started to own a computer at home, and the invention of desktop video-editing programmes meant that for the first time almost anyone was able to create a TV advert. A knock-on effect of this has been the length of the average advert, which was one minute in the 1950’s and is now just thirty seconds, probably due to the fact that there are so many companies wanting to advertise on TV today that there simply aren’t enough hours in the day to fit them all in at one minute each.

Of course, one solution would be to just show more adverts and this is exactly what has been done – fifty years ago a one-hour TV programme typically had 9 minutes of advertising but today the same length programme will have 18 minutes of adverts. Sure to annoy film buffs, old films or programmes that are screened nowadays are usually edited with bits cut out here and there to make way for paid adverts.

If you, like me, hate having your favourite programme interrupted every five minutes by a repeat of an advert that you’ve seen a million times already, you’ll be glad to know that you are not alone. The European Union does not allow more than 20% of what is screen on television to be advertising and whilst most channels max out their quota, luckily it seems that enough people have complained that TV networks are beginning to reconsider whether showing so many adverts is such a good thing – it’s a fine line between showing enough adverts to make a good profit and showing so many that viewers get annoyed and switch off.

So what about the future of TV adverts? Invented relatively recently they are already starting to age as a medium for selling. In 2009 spending on online advertising in the UK overtook TV advertising for the first time, which actually fell by over 16% in the first half of the year. Many people nowadays also watch their favourite TV programmes online or ‘on demand’, allowing them to skip straight through any adverts that come up.

TV adverts have always been slightly annoying but unavoidable, taking advantage of the fact that viewers were most likely to watch them simply because they had nothing better to do in the two or three minutes before the programme returned, but when you take that factor away from them what really is left? Who is going to watch an advert for dishwasher liquid purely out of choice? Either advertising companies are going to have to come up with a way to make TV advertising fresh and fun, or it looks like TV adverts are going to lose their value, and quickly too. Maybe in twenty years they will cost just $9 a minute again!

What do you think about adverts, do they have a future?

Estelle Puleston writes about TV advertising and is a big fan of DRTV and other TV advertising techniques. She is interested in how a tv commercial product company changes over the years.

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