Sunday, May 14, 2006

And Now a Word From Our Sponsor....

I think it is safe to say that the average American pays very little attention to television commercials (called "adverts" elsewhere in the English speaking world). Indeed, commercials are often a signal to go to the refrigerator for a snack, use the restroom, or do anything else that might take viewers away from the TV for a few minutes. When we record programmes on VCRs or DVRs, we often fast forward over the commercials. I daresay the average American tends to view commercials simply as the price we pay for network television.

Despite the average American's seeming indifference to commercials, they have been around for nearly 85 years. The first radio commercial aired on WEAF in New York in 1922. It was essentially a ten minute spiel by a representative of the Queensboro Corporation about homes in an apartment complex in Jackson Heights, New York. By 1926 music was incorporated into commericals, as General Mills introduced the "Wheaties jingle" in an ad aired on Christmas Eve of that year--the first commercial jingle in American radio history. Of course, network television would be patterned after the same format as network radio. As a result, when regular network television broadcasts began in the late Forties, commercials were part and parcel of the new medium.

The commericals of the Forties and Fifties sometimes look positively primitive by today's standards. On The Milton Berle Show, Texaco was advertised by service station attendances singing the Texaco jingle. Old Gold cigarettes were advertised with a dancing cigarette pack. Ads for Anacin simulated the symptoms of a headache by portraying it as a hammer inside the skull. Starting in 1955 a little pixie named Happy Hotpoint (played by a young Mary Tyler Moore) pushed Hotpoint's appliances.

I wasn't yet born when these commercials aired, so I know them only from TV retrospectives. On the other hand, I do have a clear memory of the commercials that aired when I was a very young child. Indeed, I don't know if the Sixties were some kind of Golden Age for TV commericals or if I was just a very impressionable child, but I seem to recall commercials from that era better than any other. One that still stands out in my mind are the commercials for Ajax laundry detergent that aired for much of the decade. It featured a knight in shining armour on a white charger who would zap clothes clean with his lance. To this day I can still picture that commercial in my head. Who knows? Maybe it started my whole fascination with the Middle Ages....

Another commercial from the Sixties I remember well was also for a laundry product. At that time Colgate put out a product called "Action," essentially packets of bleach which one would drop in his or her washer. The commercials involved an arm that would burst from the top of the washer holding a box of Action. Colgate stopped making Action long ago, but I can still remember those commercials.

Of course, I don't just remember laundry commercials from my childhood. I can also remember ads for men's cologne. In those days cologne manufacturers seemed convinced that their products could make any man irresitable to women (if only this was true...). I remember the commercials for Yardley Black Label (one of the sponsors of The Monkees) fairly well. The commercials generally featured men in some stereotypically masculine pursuit (parachuting, surfing, and so on). Inevitably, a girl would enter the picture, who would pass up one of the fellows for the other (the one who used Yardley Black Label, of course). I seem to recally that their slogan was something like "Some men have it, some men don't..." I remember the ads for Hai Karate even better. Some poor bloke would slap some Hai Karate on his face. Afterwards, he would have to use the martial arts to fight off the hordes of screaming women...

In those days characters from television shows would often appear in their programme's sponsor's commercials. On The Beverly Hillbillies it would not be unusual to see Jed and Granny in commercials for Kelloggs Corn Flakes. The Monkees also appeared in commercials for Kellogg cereals, as well as those for Yardley Black Label. And while cartoon character Joe Camel generated a lot of controversy in the Nineties, in the Sixties there was no outcry when Fred and Barney of The Flintstones pushed Winston cigarettes... Eventually the practice of TV characters pitching products would cease, although I am not sure why. I do suspect that the FCC probably frowned upon it.

Of course, sponsors would develop their own characters for commercials. Ready to eat breakfast cereals were often pitched by cartoon characters, ranging from Tony the Tiger (spokesman for Kelloggs Frosted Flakes) to Cap'n Crunch (spokesman for the cereal of the same name). Among the most memorable TV commercial characters was Mr. Whipple (played by Dick Wilson), a grocer who constantly urged his customers, "Please don't squeeze the Charmin." Naturally, he would wind up squeezing a package of the toilet paper himself. Madge the Manucurist (played by Jan Miner) persuaded her patrons that Palmolive dish soap "softens the hands." Mrs. Olson was a middle aged woman (presumably of Swedish descent) who made a habit of visiting young housewives to encourage them to use Folger's Coffee. Commercials featuring her lasted until 1985.

As I said earlier, I don't remember too many commercials since the Sixties. I don't know if they simply do not "make 'em like they used to" or if, as an adult, I am simply less impressionable. The only commercial I can recall fairly well from the Seventies is the classic Coca-Cola "Hilltop" ad, in which a group of young people sang, "I'd like to teach the world to sing..." Like most people I remember Apple's "1984" commercial advertising the introduction of the Macintosh. The commercial aired during the Super Bowl that year. It featured an auditorium filled with people watching an individual (presumably Big Brother) talk about the anniversary of the "Information Purification Directives" on a gigantic screen. A woman then entered the auditorium and hurled a sledgehammer at the screen, shattering it. The commercial was impressive, even if I never did become a fan of Macs.

Some commercials I remember simply because they were just plain bad. In 1989 a company called LifeCall started running commercials for their medical alarm systems. The commercial featured an elderly woman named Mrs. Fletcher who had fallen in her bathroom. She cried into the pendant which would alert a dispatcher to her predicament, "I've fallen and I can't get up!" While portraying what is a very serious and dangerous situation for the elderly, the actress who played Mrs. Fletcher had very little talent and as a result the commercial came off as camp. The phrase "I've fallen and I can't get up" soon entered American idiom of the time.

Fortunately, most commercials are a far sight better than the ones for Lifecall. One of my favourites aired during the 2000 Super Bowl (the Rams won!). It was an ad for Electronic Data System (EDS) which portratyed a group of cowboys who herd cats. Hundreds of cats. The commercial featured such scenes as the cats being herded across streams, being retrieved from trees, and so on. One cowboy, showing off his scratches from the felines, pointed out that cat herding is dangerous work. Another was shown rolling up a ball of yarn. The commercial was one of the funniest I've ever seen. I cracked up laughing every time I saw it.

There aren't too many recent commercials that have impressed me quite as much. I do enjoy the General Electric (GE) commercial in which an elephant in a rain forrest does the soft shoe to Singin' in the Rain. As a Gene Kelly fan I think it is hilarious. I also love the Mastercard commercial which is also a take off on McGiver. I was never a big fan of the show, but I find the commercial very funny.

Commercials have been part of the American landscape for nearly 85 years now. And regardless of the fact that most of us tend to use them as an opportunity to grab a snack or use the restroom, there is no sign that we will ever see television without them. And while we might miss many of those commercials, I have little doubt that there will be those we will remember. And even enjoy, whether we want to or not.

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