The Debate Over the First TV Commercial

Experts still disagree over which sponsor had words first.

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This much is certain. Ninety years ago this week, W1XAV in Boston, Massachusetts transmitted television video over the airwaves from The Fox Trappers. That orchestra program originated from CBS Radio, but was being shown on that upstart medium, television. During the course of the program, viewers caught an ad for the show’s sponsor, I.J. Fox Furriers. Or did they? The question seems to echo through TV history.

It might sound crazy, but there really was television in 1930. Though the medium would be widely popularized through the 1939 World’s Fair and not explode for some time, TV stations had already started to pop up around the country, broadcasting in their earliest forms. W1XAV in Boston was actually the city’s second station; it opened in 1929. Radio sponsorships were already a familiar form of advertising, with many programs carrying sponsors whose financial support kept them on the air. Such was the case with The Fox Trappers and their I.J. Fox Furriers sponsorship. When the program ran on TV, so did the identification of sponsorship.

The Bulova watch ad (Uploaded to YouTube by Illume Mtn)

However, to the minds of many critics and historians, that doesn’t really make the Furriers spot the first official commercial in the history of TV. That distinction has been awarded by many to a Bulova watch commercial that didn’t air until 1941. By this time, TV was making much deeper inroads, and the ad ran prior to the start of a Major League Baseball game between the Brooklyn Dodgers and the Philadelphia Phillies. The ad only ran a few seconds; it showed a clock face with a moving hand, offset by a ticking effect and a quick slogan. The station, New York’s WNBT (WNBC today), charged a mere $9 to run the ad; they assessed $5 in “station charges” and $4 in “air charges.”

Most TV historians believe that the Bulova ad is the official first because it was a commercial specifically produced for the medium of television. The I.J. Fox spot was a sponsorship announcement crafted for radio that just so happened to be carried over the TV airways. Even though it happened over a decade earlier, many observers call the Bulova ad first purely on intent.

The idea that a TV ad for a sporting event would only cost $9 is incredibly quaint today, given that a Super Bowl ad spot in 2020 cost $5.6 million. With the proliferation of streaming channels, we may have already seen the absolute peak of spending for television advertising; that would have been 2018, during which the industry topped $72 billion spent on TV ads.

The new question facing advertisers is how to contend with the new streaming reality. While ad placements are obviously part of network and recorded shows on venues like Hulu, other streamers like Prime Video and Disney+ eschew the practice entirely. Netflix has been noted for significant brand placement within its programs. It’s possible that deals could be struck where streaming favorites are brought to you by a single sponsor (something that Fox experimented with in 2018, when a Family Guy episode sponsored by PlayStation ran with no ad breaks), which would play into an old adage, and a favorite of ad people, “Everything old is new again.”

 

Featured Image: RCA Model 630-TS television set; mass produced in the 1940s. (Photo by Fletcher6 via Wikimedia Commons; Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported)

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Comments

  1. The very first TV commercial isn’t something I’d ever even thought of before, and am glad you did this feature. That 9 second ’41 Bulova ad is excellent to see NOW, and very to the point. I think of TV as a post-war phenomenon (which it was) but didn’t just come about or ‘materialize’ in 1946.

    It’s very logical that the origins would have gone back as far as 1929 or earlier to have been the must-see attraction it was at the 1939 World’s Fair. The Depression, then World War II staved off the ad depletion damage that TV would ultimately do to general interest magazines like Collier’s, LIFE, Look and (briefly) the Post. In the case of the Post, it was cleverly reformulated to get around having to compete with TV nearly as much for ads.

    Now advertisers are getting a taste of their own medicine from streaming as you described. They’ll likely be putting them ALL OVER online editorial content even more. Not just on the sides, but in the middle while I was reading this. Writing these comments has been distracting along the sides. So far they’ve stayed out of the comment box itself. The ads will always find you by hook or crook, you know that!

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