How TV ads Started and Evolved Over the Decades

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How TV ads Started and Evolved Over the Decades

First Ever Television Advertisement

Imagine this scene: It’s a sunny July day in the year 1941, and a family in New York City gathers around their brand-new television to catch the Brooklyn Dodgers facing off against the Philadelphia Phillies. They’re among the fortunate few to own one of the mere 4,000 TV sets in the city at that time.

Just before the baseball game kicks off, an advertisement airs for the Bulova Watch Company. This pioneering 10-second spot, featuring a static graphic and a live voiceover, boldly declares, “America runs on Bulova Time.”

As the world’s inaugural TV commercial, this brief advertisement heralds a paradigm shift in marketing tactics.

Aired on the NBC-owned station WNBT, the commercial came with a price tag of $9 for Bulova. Yet, it symbolized the dawn of a multi-billion dollar industry: television advertising.

At that time, radio advertising reigned supreme, but the ascent of television was swift and inexorable. The allure of captivating audiences with moving images held immense promise.

Fast forward to the present day, where we possess the luxury of skipping through commercials with the push of a button, and it’s evident how profoundly TV advertising has shaped our culture. Countless iconic jingles, slogans, and characters have sprung to life during commercial breaks.

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Without TV ads, the likes of Flo from Progressive or the Geiko Gekko would never have become cultural touchstones. Phrases like “Dilly Dilly” and “Wazzup” would lack context, and the popularity of Snuggies might never have reached the heights it did.

Over its 80-year lifespan, TV advertising has undergone significant evolution. Today, viewers are more inclined to stream content via connected TVs (CTV), ushering in new paradigms of advertising.

Where commercials once adhered to a “spray and pray” model, broadcasting generic messages to broad audiences in hopes of capturing a few prospects, programmatic advertising now enables marketers to precisely target audiences with tailored messages.

In this article and accompanying infographic, we delve into the rich history of commercials and speculate on the future trajectory of advertising. Buckle up, because the journey ahead promises to be a thrilling one.


In June of 1941, the FCC lifted its prohibition on TV advertising, marking the advent of commercials on television just one month later. The Bulova watches advertisement mentioned earlier became the inaugural commercial on television, or at least the first lawful one. Prior TV advertising tests went uncompensated due to regulatory constraints.

U.S. advertisers eagerly explored the possibilities of this new medium. In 1949, Vitamix made history with the world’s first infomercial. “Papa” Bernard, the founder of Vitamix, capitalized on his sales background by hosting a live, thirty-minute product demonstration of his revolutionary blender. He aimed to sell 18 machines to cover advertising costs but ended up selling 400 in a single evening.

Meanwhile, international marketers followed suit. In 1953, a commercial for Seiko watches marked Japan’s entry into TV advertising, followed by a Gibbs SR toothpaste ad in the United Kingdom in 1955.

With watches, toothpaste, blenders, and more finding success on television, advertisers broadened their horizons. Political advertising also made its debut with Eisenhower’s 1952 campaign commercial, “Ike for President,” which played a significant role in his electoral victory in the first U.S. election where TV played a pivotal role.

By 1955, television had supplanted radio as the primary entertainment source in American households. It would soon also replace newspapers as the primary news source, compelling advertisers to embrace this burgeoning medium.

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The late 1950s marked the onset of the Golden Age of Advertising. Agencies began treating commercials as artistic endeavors in their own right, resulting in an era of creative brilliance. The substantial increase in industry spending further fueled this creativity.

During this period, commercials began to complement popular entertainment shows like I Love Lucy and The Ed Sullivan Show, reminiscent of the Mad Men era. Despite being relatively new, commercials captured viewers’ attention, prompting advertisers to elevate their creativity.

In 1963, Ronald McDonald made his debut in a series of commercials, while a decade later, the iconic Oscar Mayer “My Bologna Has a First Name” jingle first aired, continuing its run in commercials until 2010.

Other memorable jingles, characters, and slogans from commercials during this era include:

  • Introduction of the Pillsbury Doughboy in 1965
  • Launch of the Tootsie Pop “How Many Licks” campaign in 1968
  • Debut of Nike’s iconic “Just Do It” campaign in 1988

By the 1980s, TV advertising had become a significant industry, with major networks like ABC, CBS, and NBC collectively generating over $4 billion in revenue. It was during this time that Apple aired its iconic Macintosh commercial during the 1984 Super Bowl, investing $500,000 for a single spot. This marked a turning point where the annual football game became a major advertising event and the beginning of an era where ads could generate as much buzz as breaking news.


Around the time of the fall of the Berlin Wall, another revolution was brewing as British scientist Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web in 1989. Although its full impact on entertainment, advertising, and daily life wouldn’t be realized immediately, the stage was set for significant changes.

Technological advancements moved swiftly during this period. Online broadcasting debuted just four years later, spearheaded by a group of Silicon Valley scientists known as Severe Tire Damage. They streamed the first broadcast online, utilizing half of the internet’s available bandwidth at the time.

Subsequently, online advertising made its debut with an AT&T banner ad within a year. YouTube further revolutionized the landscape in 2006 with its first ad concept, ushering in the era of ad-supported streaming.


From 2007 to 2014, the landscape saw a surge in over-the-top (OTT) broadcasting and connected television (CTV) innovation. This period began with Netflix shifting its focus from mailing DVDs to streaming content directly to viewers’ living rooms, revolutionizing internet video consumption.

This disruption brought about several changes, including the freedom for viewers to watch content on their own schedules and a subscription-based model that initially excluded advertisers. However, Hulu’s launch of its ad-supported streaming platform the following year reintegrated advertisers into the equation, giving birth to the CTV advertising industry.

Television sets became increasingly smart, with major manufacturers like LG, HP, Samsung, and Sony developing connected TV sets. Similarly, Roku released its set-top box, transforming conventional TVs into smart, connected devices.

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In 2015, the introduction of the first programmatic CTV ad by Strategus propelled TV advertising into a new realm. Targeting consumers actively considering purchasing a car, this campaign showcased the potential of programmatic CTV in reaching relevant audiences with precision.

The allure of CTV advertising lies in its ability to deliver sophisticated campaigns to likely buyers, departing from the traditional method of broadcasting generic commercials to broad audiences. This shift toward personalized, data-driven advertising aligns with the evolving landscape of digital streaming and offers advertisers new opportunities for targeted outreach.

Since the inception of the first CTV ad, ad-supported streaming has proliferated. Building on Hulu’s success with the ad-supported video-on-demand (AVOD) model, streaming giants like Netflix and Disney+ have incorporated advertising into their business models. Additionally, free ad-supported TV (FAST) services are gaining traction, providing cord-cutters with access to channels at no cost through platforms like Roku, Pluto TV, and Peacock.

Consequently, streaming now exceeds traditional linear cable in terms of viewership. In simpler terms, if you’re not targeting CTV viewers with your advertising efforts, you’re overlooking the largest portion of the audience.

From 2023 onwards

Predicting the future remains uncertain. Will virtual reality revolutionize advertising, or has the potential of the metaverse diminished? What about artificial intelligence? Is it poised to revolutionize video production?

Despite these uncertainties, two facts remain evident: TV advertising remains a steadfast presence, and the future of streaming leans towards ad-supported models.


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