The History (and Future) of TV Advertising

Written by Daniel Southwell on November 8, 2021

More Than a Snack Break

TV commercials are just part of our cultural landscape. It’s unlikely that you can remember a world without them. You probably remember commercials you saw as a child. You probably ran to the kitchen for a snack during the commercial breaks of your favorite shows (and you probably still do, if you watch anything live anymore). There are commercials you enjoy every time you see them, and commercials you dread. 

They’re a completely expected part of watching TV, and have been for a long time.

But, not that long, in the grand scheme of things.

Commercials Before Commercials

The earliest TV commercials didn’t come out of nowhere. They had their roots in existing ways of selling to audiences.

Companies were using film for advertising long before TV. Early movie theaters showed a diverse lineup of films – each usually showing a newsreal, a cartoon, a feature film, and “snipes.” Snipes are anything other than the presentation or trailers. Paying for advertising in theaters got started early, like this Admiral Cigarette snipe from 1897, called “We All Smoke.”

But in many ways, the model that would work for TV was invented for radio. It was a new, exciting technology, but at first, no one knew how to make it profitable. In 1922, an AT&T station, WEAF (later purchased by the NBC Network), began selling airtime to any company that wanted to put a message on the air. Their first purchaser was an apartment building in New York state. They were immediately followed by an oil company, and American Express.

And broadcast advertising was born.

The Birth of TV Advertising

Like radio before it, and social media after it, TV boomed before it was monetized. The money was in selling TV sets. But once most homes had one, the model had to pivot.

The first TV ad ran on July 1st, 1941, before a game between the then-Brooklyn Dodgers and the Philadelphia Phillies.

It was short, it was simple, and it cost $9. And it started an incredible shakeup in advertising.

At first, single companies sponsored entire shows, with the broadcast announcing the sponsor before and after. 

But by the end of the 50s, the TV networks were in control, and began selling advertising time in segments, with multiple advertisers sponsoring a single show. The commercial break as we know it was born.

The Golden Age of Television

In 1950, 9% of American households had a TV. Fifteen years later, it was over 92%. It was nothing short of a complete revolution in both entertainment and advertising. 

Commercials beaming their way into American living rooms was quickly ubiquitous, and provided a playground for creativity unlike anything the advertising industry had ever had before.

Early TV commercials were little more than radio ads with some visuals attached – a voiceover listing selling features did all the heavy lifting. This was even the case for ads promoting television sets.

But the explosion in TV ownership coincided with a creative rejuvenation in the advertising industry. Within a decade, commercial filmmakers were stretching the medium and exploring what was possible in film that wasn’t possible anywhere else.

Like Pizza Hut’s first TV commercial from 1965, commercials were telling stories visually.

Once commercial filmmakers figured out what they could do that no other advertisers could do, TV commercials never looked back.

The Super Bowl Era

In 1984, Apple released their aptly-named “1984” commercial, directed by Ridley Scott.

It was a transformative commercial for a groundbreaking product, and it changed the tech landscape forever. But it changed commercials, too. “1984” ran for the first time during the 1984 Super Bowl, and almost single handedly made the Super Bowl the most in-demand advertising slot of the year.

Over the next few decades, Super Bowl commercials and other high-profile airtime slots transformed ad films into their own form of entertainment. A well executed commercial became an event. The world quickly realized that TV ads had the power to be a topic of conversation in their own right.

And That Brings Us to Now

We’re still, to some extent, in the Super Bowl Era of filmed advertising. But in 2017, TV ad spending decreased for the first time ever. 

We’ve entered a new frontier. 

Filmed advertising isn’t going anywhere. It’s bigger than ever. But between social and streaming, the ways to deliver it are suddenly endless. For advertisers who learned their trade in a TV-only world, it can seem overwhelming. 

We’re experiencing an advertising revolution. The historical ways of doing things aren’t the only options anymore. But the history of TV advertising can still serve us, because if we look at the advertising revolutions of the past we can learn about how to survive this one.

At first, advertisers always tried to create ads for a new format using the methods of the past. Like using radio strategies for TV.

But they really started to create something effective when they leaned into what TV was good at.

That’s the point we’re at in this new era: we’re all learning how to advertise to the strengths of new media. It’s an exciting time to be a commercial filmmaker.

Because a few things will always be true: good storytelling will never go out of style, and new ways of telling them will keep emerging.

As long as you have a good story to tell, and you’re willing to innovate in how you tell it, you’re going to be fine.

What can we do now that our predecessors couldn’t have imagined? What new technology will change the face of advertising? What can we learn from the advertisers of the past and where will the next frontier take us?


For more thoughts on the future of advertising, check out Josh’s Marketing Conversation with Brittany Slattery.