The Debate Over the First TV Commercial


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)

News of the Week: February Blues, Cursing in Virginia, and How to Make a Chilly Night a Chili Night

Okay, I’m Ready for Winter to Be Over

Regular readers of this column know that I much prefer the cold days and nights of the fall and winter over the warm days and nights of the summer. Actually, regular readers of this column might be a little sick of hearing that. But I bring it up again so I can say this: I’m ready for spring.

I love the cold temps and the fact that it gets dark early, and I even love snowstorms (yes, I’m one of those people), but there comes a time, right around the end of February, when even I have had enough. I want to put the shovels away for the season, the chill in the air and the dry skin start to get to me, and I’m ready for more tennis to be shown on my television. So bring on the warmer temperatures.

Of course, stay tuned to this spot in July, when I’m sure I’ll be complaining about how humid it is, the ants and the bees, the fact that I have to wear shorts, the tourists that double the population of my town, and how Labor Day can’t come soon enough.

Oh, who am I kidding. I’ll be complaining in June.

Maybe what I’m really itching for isn’t spring, but fall. Maybe the only reason I’m ready for warm weather to come is that it means we’re that much closer to September.

The Closest Thing to Home

That was McDonald’s slogan in the late 1960s. Now it looks like they’re literally trying to make that happen.

The fast food chain is selling six scented candles that smell like beef, cheese, ketchup, pickles, onions, and a sesame seed bun. I know they’re going for a Quarter Pounder theme here, but I think it’s a mistake that there’s no candle that smells like french fries.

The best thing about these candles is that they’ll make your home smell like a McDonald’s. The worst thing? They’ll make your home smell like a McDonald’s.

Here’s the first appearance of Ronald McDonald, in a 1963 commercial, long before the company thought of selling candles. That’s former Today show weatherman Willard Scott under the makeup. He has a tray of food on his head.

Uploaded to YouTube by VintageTVCommercials

This Woman Has Been Selling Girl Scout Cookies Since 1932

This weekend is officially Girl Scout Cookie Weekend. The cookies are available from your local scouts or online (yes, there’s an app for that), including the best ones, the Samoas (they may be called Caramel deLites, depending on where you live).

If you’re near Wernersville, Pennsylvania, you can buy them from Ronnie Backenstoe. She’s been selling the cookie for 88 years. Back when she started there were only three flavors of cookie, many troops baked their own, and Herbert Hoover was president.

It’s worth noting that she’s not still selling the same boxes of cookies she was selling in 1932. That’d be weird.

Road Trip!

Breaking News: You can now legally swear in Virginia.

RIP Clive Cussler, Katherine Johnson, B. Smith, Hosni Mubarak, Sy Sperling, Larry Tesler, Diana Serra Cary, and “Mad” Mike Hughes

In addition to writing or co-authoring more than 80 books, including popular novels like Raise the Titanic! that featured his hero Dirk Pitt, Clive Cussler led various expeditions to shipwrecks and lost treasure. He died Monday at the age of 88.

Katherine Johnson played a major role in getting Americans to the moon in 1969. She was one of the subjects of the Oscar-nominated 2016 film Hidden Figures. She died earlier this week at the age of 101.

B. Smith was a style and home decor expert who was also a successful restaurateur and author. She died last weekend at the age of 70.

Hosni Mubarak was the former president of Egypt. He died Tuesday at the age of 91.

Sy Sperling was not only the president of the Hair Club For Men, he was also a client. He died last week at the age of 78 with a full head of hair.

Larry Tesler was the computer scientist we can thank for creating the cut, copy, and paste functions we use every day. He died last week at the age of 74.

Diana Serra Cary — aka Baby Peggy — starred in several popular silent movies when she was a child. After leaving the industry at a young age, she went on to author several books. She died Monday at the age of 101.

You can donate to her GoFundMe page to help pay for medical bills and funeral costs.

“Mad” Mike Hughes was a daredevil and inventor who was convinced the Earth was flat. He died when his rocket crashed on Saturday. He was 64.

Quote of the Week

“They asked Katherine Johnson for the moon, and she gave it to them.”

—opening line of Margalit Fox’s obituary for Johnson, in The New York Times

This Week in History

First Woolworth’s Opens (February 22, 1879)

I miss this chain. I have a lot of great memories of shopping and eating there when I was a kid.

If you happen to be in Bakersfield, California, at some point, you can eat at the last remaining Woolworth’s lunch counter in America, at the Five and Dime Antique Mall.

Ben Hecht Born (February 28, 1894)

The writer of such movies as The Front Page, Wuthering Heights, Some Like It Hot, and dozens where he didn’t even get credit wrote several short stories for the Post, including “Swindler’s Luck,” featured in our January 12, 1952, issue.

This Week in Saturday Evening Post History: Party Holding Up the Elevator (February 25, 1961)

I bet the people on the first floor in this Ben Kimberly Prins cover are swearing like people in Virginia.

Illustration showing the a party holding up an apartment building's elevator

There’s Still Time for Chili

Sure, it’s been warm lately and I’m ready for spring, but that doesn’t mean we don’t still have some cold nights ahead of us in the next month or so. And what better to eat on those nights than chili?

Here’s a recipe for Cowboy Beef and Black Bean Chili, and here’s one for Turkey Pumpkin Chili, which won a contest among Post staffers in 2009. If you’re looking for something a little more healthy, how about this Vegetarian Chili?

There’s even a Chocolate Chili, though I don’t know if you can use the chocolate from Samoas or Thin Mints, but hey, give it a shot.

Next Week’s Holidays and Events

Leap Day (February 29)

How are you going to take advantage of the extra day we have in February this year? Call in sick? Take a trip? Go shopping? Clean the house? Get married? Maybe you can just sleep in late.

South Carolina Primary (February 29)

… or maybe you can celebrate the day by watching live coverage of this Democratic Primary.

Super Tuesday (March 3)

Here are all the states holding primaries on Tuesday: Alabama, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Maine, Massachusetts, Minnesota, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Vermont, and #%$&! Virginia.

Featured image: Shutterstock