10 things you might not know about TV commercials
1. The first legal television commercial was pretty simple: A picture of a clock on a U.S. map, with a voice-over saying, "America runs on Bulova time." The 10-second spot on July 1, 1941, aired on the NBC station in New York and cost the watch company $9.
2. Your favorite hour-long, prime-time show is closer to 40 minutes, once you subtract commercials and network promotions. From 1991 to 2003, the total time viewers spent not watching the show jumped to 17.5 minutes from about 13 minutes per prime-time hour. Many countries regulate the amount of advertising per hour, but a similar industry agreement in the U.S. was ruled illegal in the 1980s.
3. Relief is on the way. Beginning in December, a new law will require a TV ad to be aired at the same volume as the program it's running in. The two-page bill took two years to pass.
4. The longest-running TV commercial appears to be for Discount Tire. The 10-second spot, which first aired in 1975, shows an old lady throwing a tire through a store window as the announcer says, "If you're not satisfied with one of our tires, please feel free to bring it back." But that's no granny tossing a tire. The woman hired to play the disgruntled customer wasn't strong enough, so a man on the production crew named John Staub stood in for the stunt. "I'm an old lady with a mustache in the window reflection, but you can't really see it because it edits so fast," he said.
5. Sometimes the commercials bleed into the shows. In 1959, the script for a "Playhouse 90" about the Nuremberg war crimes trials included the word "gas" in reference to the Nazi death chambers. But that word was edited out of the script at the insistence of the show's sponsor, a natural gas industry group. Despite that, some references to "gas ovens" made it through, so they were removed during the live broadcast. Actors lips moved, but viewers heard "(silence) ovens."
6. Counter to conventional wisdom that says people use DVRs to skip ads, Nielsen reported last month that 45 percent of all recorded commercials are still viewed.
7. Public service announcements were first created by the Ad Council during World War II to get Rosie to work and to tighten loose lips. In 1971, on the second Earth Day, the world met "the crying Indian," played by Iron Eyes Cody. The famous anti-pollution ad, which showed Cody paddling a canoe and watching motorists litter, effectively gave the new ecology movement a huge boost. As it turns out, Cody was of Italian descent (real name Espera DeCorti), but he appeared in hundreds of movies and TV shows as a Native American and denied his European ancestry until his death in 1999.
8. The "I'd like to buy the world a Coke" commercial in the early 1970s was so popular that people called local TV stations to request it. It was reprised with the original singers and their children for a 1990 Super Bowl ad.
9. In 1989, Pepsi ran a TV commercial that advertised a TV commercial. An ad during the Grammy Awards telecast revealed that a Pepsi commercial featuring Madonna and her hit, "Like a Prayer," would debut a week and a half later. Indeed it did, but the impact was ruined amid the outrage over the song's racy video.
10. For a time, "The Flintstones" was sponsored by Winston cigarettes, and commercials showed prehistoric puffing by Fred, Barney and Wilma.
Mark Jacob is a deputy metro editor for the Tribune; Stephan Benzkofer is the Tribune's weekend editor.
Sources: "Encyclopedia of Television," by Horace Newcomb; "Connecting with Consumers: Marketing for New Marketplace Realities," by Allan J. Kimmel; "Television's Strangest Moments," by Quentin Falk and Ben Falk; "Truth and Rumors: The Reality Behind TV's Most Famous Myths," by Bill Brioux; "What Were They Thinking: The 100 Dumbest Events in Television History," by David Hofstede; "Madonna: An Intimate Biography," by J. Randy Taraborrelli; "Fifties Television," by William Boddy; "Invasion of the Mind Snatchers: Television's Conquest of America in the Fifties," by Eric Burns; "The New Icons?: The Art of Television Advertising," by Paul Rutherford; U.S. House; White House; Arizona Republic; vintageTVcommercials.com; bulova.com; snopes.com; adcouncil.org; tvacres.com; Nielsen Media Research.