The Advolution of TV

bread ad from the 1950s

By Riki Markowitz

There’s no doubt that Americans are fascinated with television commercials. What is so telling is that while most of us have the ability to fast-forward through ads, many of us choose not to. NielsenWire reported in May 2010, “It’s always been conventional wisdom that people watching TV don’t watch commercials. They flip channels, get something to eat or otherwise ignore the ads. In fact, it turns out the conventional wisdom is all wrong.”

Commercials people are primarily opting to watch are not those epic, million dollar spots featuring Betty White and Clint Eastwood that premier during the Super Bowl — though we’re certainly watching those, too. Rather, if you search Youtube for top television commercials of any specific decade, you will find loops of ordinary ads that ran on a single, random night during primetime. These are your run-of-the-mill pharma ads, spots for detergents and neighborhood car dealerships.

Gender Roles

One reason we’re so captivated by commercials is that it’s fascinating to track our footprints through the decades. TV advertisements show us exactly when women went from mistress of the laundry room to master of the boardroom. One popular sales ploy from the early 70s is to feature a a mom with a pile of soiled laundry. “The male voice of authority overrides hers to tell how brand X with its fast-acting enzymes will get her clothes cleaner than clean,” says Vaishali Shrikhande, who, in 2003, wrote a graduate thesis paper on female stereotypes in American advertising.
Through to the 80s, commercials were showing women in a very narrow range of roles, said Shrikhande, “with depictions concentrated on the traditional occupations of housewife, mother and secretary.” During this decade, women were over represented in ads for household products, serving as an authoritative figure in 14 percent of ads, but depicted as product users 86 percent of the time.
In commercials that target males, however, women were rarely in the home. More than a half-century of alcohol ads show men bonding and getting their most basic, hedonistic needs met. In these spots, women are carefree, objects of desire.
While women evolved from the role of homemaker in the 60s and 70s, by the end of the 80s, the gap between men and women narrowed to the point where “women appeared in occupational roles and men were presented as parents and spouses, with no other apparent occupation,” wrote Shrikhande. This is also about the time when, as life coach Patrick Wanis observes, men are portrayed “as inferior, inept idiots.” Women became smug, confident Jackie’s of all trades while the men, now mostly bumbling, clumsy dads, can barely find the front door. How did this happen? Karma? Backlash? Wanis points out that women make up to 85 percent of all household purchases. Following a decade of hardcore women’s liberation, Madison Avenue execs figure they won’t lose points by putting women on a pedestal and men in the doghouse.

From Food to Big Pharma

In the mid 80s Wendy’s was asking, “Where’s the beef,” the pork industry was praising the benefits of “the other white meat” and Taco Bell was encouraging us to “think outside of the bun.” Just one decade later, thanks to writer Elizabeth Wurtzel and changes in pharmaceutical advertising laws, America became a “Prozac Nation.”
In the early years of television mostly we see spots for over the counter sinus and allergy meds and potions for the treatment of constipation and indigestion. In 1997 the FDA ruled that pharma companies could stop listing major statements about drugs in TV spots. Since it was proving impossible to address in a 30 second ad all the complications that could occur by taking an anti-depressant, statin or a myriad of other drugs, pharmaceutical companies were simply tasked with pointing out where viewers could access more information and comment on only major drug risks and benefits. “Spending on direct-to-consumer advertising increased by 296.4% from 1997 to 2005 … and spending on pharmaceutical research and development increased by 103.3%,” according to a 2009 article published by Novus Medical Detox Centers in California.

Game Changer

The overall picture shows that television commercials really haven’t changed that drastically since the 1950s. In 2008, top advertisers were Procter & Gamble, General Motors, Johnson & Johnson, General Electric, Ford and PepsiCo. In fact, ads featuring toothpaste, cars, colas and ovens make most top 10 TV advertising lists over the past half-century with tech and communications corporations appearing on lists starting in the 80s. The biggest game changer is actually occurring now. Like in the early 40s when television stole radio’s thunder, the more sophisticated technologies are now undermining television in ways that forecasters can only predict. There is no precedent for the changes we’re seeing in how advertisers connect with consumers.
While the concept of viral marketing may have been around since the 1990s when an animated baby danced a cha-cha on network television’s Ally McBeal, it wasn’t until 2005 that Youtube — a perfect platform for viral videos —was founded. Today, ads that aren’t shared on Facebook or Tweeted by the masses cannot get the number of viewers that advertisers could once achieve by buying a two-minute spot during a hit program like Friends or ER.
The battle for mobile phone users, credit card customers and prescription drug users will now be fought for on a radically different playing field. In 2003 Shrikhande said, “people are likely to perceive the world as what is depicted through television.” I believe we’re more apt to perceive the world as what is depicted through our devices and social media platforms. Unlike television, on our devices advertisers are developing savvy, unique ways to engage with consumers. The only groups being marginalized now are those who reject technology: the disenfranchised and seniors, mostly — demographics that advertisers were never very interested in targeting in the first place.

Posted by at February 28, 2012
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