The 10-second spot for Bulova Watches made its début during a baseball game in Brooklyn, New York
There were adverts on TV before July 1st, 1941. They just weren’t legal ones. At the time, there were only about 4,000 TV sets in the New York City area, which was about half of all the TVs in the United States. Illegal commercials had appeared as early as the 1930s, when Red Barber, the voice of the Brooklyn Dodgers, dabbled in a spot of product placement, long before the concept even existed.
Having been paid by General Mills, Procter & Gamble, and Socony Oil – now known as Mobil – to promote their products during the first ever televised baseball game, Barber cheerfully turned to the camera, chopping a banana into his bowl of Wheaties, displayed a bar of soap, and wore a petrol-station attendant’s cap. Rules had been already written up on what counted as commercial broadcasting, but this illegal advertising made it past all the bases to the tiny number of viewers sitting at home.
But a first legitimate and entirely legal advert would have to come at some point, and it finally did at 2.29pm on July 1st, 1941. A 10-second spot, read out live on air, aping the style of advertising popular on radio at the time, because frankly there wasn’t anything else to ape.
“America runs on Bulova time,” a confident man’s voice announces, showing the map of the 48 continental states forming the union, with a watch face showing the wrong time of day.
The tagline was one well known to the American broadcast audience, they’d have heard it many times on radio and read it newspapers too. But the truth is that the TV advert, officially the world’s first, did not reach very many people. TV broadcasting the US officially started in 1928, an entirely “experimental” platform. The Federal Communications Commission, the state body charged with regulating radio and television broadcasts, only issued its first commercial licences in May, 1941.
Television, though, was considered a feeble medium by the hard-drinking ad men on Madison Avenue. A newfangled fad, it lacked the legacy and prestige of the big national magazines and papers, and lagged behind radio in terms of star power and reach. As late as 1946, the four major radio networks in the US – known as the ‘webs’ – had the potential to reach ears in 90% of homes from coast to coast, and about half of the cars driving from one to the other. The only television network, on the other hand, connected three cities in total, New York, Schenectady, and Philadelphia.
On July 1st, 1941, the Bulova advert had to be performed live, because there wasn’t the technical scope to pre-package video and edit it into a product. It was just the graphic and the live read of the tagline. According to American Heritage magazine, the whole thing cost only $9 - $4 for the time on air and $5 for the station charges, from which Biow Company, the creative agency behind the product, would have drawn its 15% commission.
Today, 75 years later, TV advertising is over the crest of the wave of its cultural relevancy, losing ground all the time to the all-reaching power of the Internet. Live TV viewing is fast becoming a thing of the past, with only sporting fixtures and the most prestige of prestige dramas seen as sure bet with viewers far more used to curling up on the couch and watching à la carte. A dying art? Maybe. But on the 75th anniversary of the world’s first commercial played out during a break in a baseball game, the TV advert has certainly had a good innings.