Art & Commerce: Tried-and-True Tactic

When television executives and advertisers came together in the spring for their annual “upfront” meetings, there was an atmosphere of gathering doom. Amid the usual optimistic presentations of the fall program lineups, no one needed reminding that the digital video recorder is poised to undermine the whole broadcasting equation. TV shows exist for the commercials. If the DVR lets viewers pass over those commercials, then who needs TV shows? Of all the suggested solutions, though, the most viable is the same one that radio broadcasters came up with 80 years ago.

The only guarantee that an advertisement will be seen or heard is to nestle it right into the show itself. New terms, like “product placement” and “branded content,” describe an old idea. Nineteenth century vaudeville stages were decorated with placards from local businesses, and content and commercials shared scenes on radio and television from the ’30s through the ’50s. Titles bore the name of sponsors; stars delivered pitches.

Of course, cars, soft drinks, snack foods and other products show up all over programs today. Although the aggressively creative strategies of the past remain pretty much unexplored, they aren’t necessarily a bad thing. We forget that the integrated advertising model flourished during a period we now refer to as “the golden age of television.”

TV’s first big hit was The Texaco Star Theater. One of the best parts of the show, its theme song, was sung by four service station attendants whose doggerel never even mentioned the star (Milton Berle) but did manage to explicate the merits of a variety of Texaco’s products and services. There were no commercial interruptions. Instead, Sid Stone would come onstage and do a comedy routine punctuated by snake oil patter about Havoline motor oil and Sky Chief gasoline. Stone’s gags were often funnier than the stale hash Berle was slinging.

Some of Jack Benny’s best radio bits featured him talking with sly irony to his sponsor or making an arch reference to the sponsor’s products during his performance. On TV, Benny and Humphrey Bogart worked a long and hilariously written plug for Lucky Strike into a detective sketch. In its early seasons, The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show didn’t break for commercials. In one scene per episode, they’d gently slide into a discussion of how good Gracie’s custard tasted, thanks to the fact that she made it with Carnation Evaporated Milk, or how much better George’s coffee would be if he used Carnation instead of cream. In one episode, Gracie received a bouquet of carnations and was convinced that she could milk them like a cow. It was shameless product placement circa 1950—and the funniest line of the night.

Fifties-era quiz shows displayed the sponsor’s name in nearly every shot: on the host’s and contestants’ podia, on the game board, on the soundproof booth. It didn’t add much to our enjoyment of the show, but it didn’t really hurt it either. (Can anyone seriously argue that the integrity of NBC’s Deal or No Deal would be compromised if the sponsors’ names were plastered on every available surface? It’s a game show, after all, and this is what game shows were invented to do.)

The good news for advertisers is that people who watch TV on DVR actually watch commercials more raptly than ever before; the bad news is they do it 10 times faster. The commercial used to be an invitation to visit the bathroom or the refrigerator; now we monitor the ads with rapt attention to be sure we disengage the fast-forward in time. The cleverest advertisers have figured out how to make ads work at high speeds, like interstate billboards, but the real trick is to put something in front of viewers that will make them slam on the brakes.

If, as in the case of serious dramas, you can’t place the products right in the show itself, the next best thing is to present separate ads that feature the people viewers tuned in to see in the first place. These commercials reached their peak in the 1960s, mostly on comedies. Characters from The Andy Griffith Show did short single-scene sketches about Sanka coffee just before the credits rolled. The Beverly Hillbillies did the same for Kellogg’s Corn Flakes. American Idol follows this tradition with its music videos for Ford, probably the most TiVo-proof advertisements on TV.

At their best, these ads aren’t interruptions, they’re bonus material: a chance to see favorite characters in a different context. Ernie Kovacs, one of TV’s most innovative comic talents, raised it to an art form. The quick blackouts he did for Dutch Masters cigars were masterpieces, every bit as weird and funny as the blackouts in the show itself.

Isolated from the episode itself so as not to disturb the flow or texture of the narrative, these ads could even work for dramas. Left in the hands of the show’s producers—if they could be convinced to submit to such abject huckstering—one can imagine funny ad-scenes with the cast of Lost, Grey’s Anatomy and even 24. It’s an automatic weekly campaign that could be shot with relative ease and economy during the production of each episode.

If today’s industry could pull off the integrated ad with the same aplomb that masters like Benny, Burns and Allen and Kovacs did, we might find viewers fast-forwarding through the show to get to the commercials.