To many of television's critics, advertising is the symbol of all that is wrong with the medium.
The commercials, they say, are intrusive, repetitious, and dishonest, and appeal to viewers' base,
material instincts. They turn a communications medium of unparalleled power into a vast wasteland,
a Turkish bazaar, a patent-medicine show. Their exaggerations, their sometimes crude cajoling by
fantasy and hyperbole have made commercials the targets of outrage and satire from the early days
of Milton Berle to the contemporary assaults of Saturday Night Live.
The facts suggest a different reading. Advertisers use television the way they have used every mass
medium from the first days of widespread newspaper circulation. They have discovered that television
lends itself to certain techniques of selling which are especially powerful because the medium is
powerful. The unique contribution of television to advertising is its prodigious ability to communicate
not simply information about a product, but also fantasies about consumers and how they choose to
live. Commercials are more carefully prepared, more elaborately produced, and more frequently seen
than any one program on televison.
Every advertising medium uses familiar personalities to help the customer form the proper image of
the product. Comet cleanser wanted to achieve a sense of unfancy, just-plain-folks competence. Its
symbol: former movie star Jane Withers as "Josephine the Plumber."
Jesse White portrayed a Maytag appliance repairman who finds his work lonely because so few customers
need to have their machines repaired. The campaign is a humerous way of making a claim that might
be greeted skeptically at face value.
Increasingly, advertising wraps its products around a life-style. They will place the product in exactly
the right environment, with exactly the right looking people, to get the effect they want. For example,
in the American Express Travelers Cheques campaign, Karl Malden is always wearing his hat, even indoors.
Why? Because American Express wants the image of a tough, protective, law enforcement figure standing
behind its checks. Malden is the embodiment of the law enforcement officer, the symbol of security
an uncertain traveler wants in a traveler's check.
Hertz rents automobiles to time-conscious executives; using football star O.J. Simpson to demonstrate
speed and excellence was an effective match of personality and product.
In television's early days, when sponsors packaged and paid for programming by themselves, advertisers
found many ways to increase the frequency of their messages. Here Ted Mack and the Original Ameteur
Hour offers viewers a permanent reminder of the advertiser. Sponsors were clearly identified with
specific programs. It was in effect, a holdover from the earliest days of radio, when sponsors hoped
in part to earn the gratitude of listeners in return for paying for programming. The advertisers in
the early days of television were, like the early programs, fascinated with the sheer magic of being
able to show something to the viewer.
Animation, never before possible in mass advertising, came into its own with television. Ajax cleanser
employed animated elfs to sing "Use Ajax, the foaming cleanser/Cleans the dirt right down the drain."
Advertising catch-phrases became part of our American culture.
Charlie the Tuna (voice supplied by actor Herschel Bernardi) for years tried to join the Star-Kist
company as food, only to be told that "Star-Kist doesn't want tuna with good taste, it wants tuna
that tastes good."