Abstract: The First Pitch: American TV Commercials in the 1950s

James L. Baughman


The first decade of television commercials offers a window on prevailing theories about broadcast salesmanship—and advertising generally—in mid-twentieth-century America. Television's swift diffusion in the 1950s created enormous opportunities for ad agencies. And most followed rules conveying agency culture in the decade before "the creative revolution" began to transform the industry. TV advertising should appeal to a mass audience. The restrictive nature of TV service—most Americans could choose from among only three channels—discouraged pitches that played to demographic sub-groups. At the same time, most agencies assumed that an excessively clever or humorous commercial distracted from the spot's core message. The best pitch was serious. "The purpose of a commercial," Rosser Reeves of Ted Bates wrote, "is not to entertain the viewer but to sell him." In that regard, many television ads, mimicking a radio practice, affected intimacy, or what the sociologist Robert Merton termed "pseudo-intimacy." The seller on the small screen was your friend. Finally, advertisers sought to identify their products with TV's stars. The tendency of programs to have single underwriters eased this goal. Commercials and product plugs were routinely integrated into programs, including those for children.