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Television advertising in Britain began on 22 September 1955. ‘Coincidentally’, the BBC chose the same evening to kill off Grace Archer in its long-running radio soap The Archers, thus stealing the next day’s newspaper headlines.

It was extraordinary that the BBC should feel the need to go to such lengths when most commentators gave the then-new ITV station little chance of success. ITV’s detractors claimed it would be too American, the British public would not want their programmes interrupted by adverts, and it would never be as good as the BBC. In any case, ITV was only available in London.

The early commercials were rather different from those we are familiar with today. Most noticeable is that they are in black and white—but they are also much longer than today’s adverts, the lighting is harsher and they are far more stilted. They had white middle-class actors, values and accents and their message was spelled out with agonising slowness. In effect, they were moving newspaper adverts. In part, this was a result of the lack of experience in television advertising in Britain. But, more importantly, it was because the television industry was concerned not to appear too American.

The first commercial was for Gibbs SR toothpaste. It featured a tube of toothpaste, a block of ice and a commentary about its ‘tingling fresh’ qualities. Its style is jerky and uncertain. Typically of the early adverts, any single frame could be used with a written caption as a newspaper advert. The first Persil adverts were actually adapted from their familiar posters, with dancers and sailors in different shades of white and the announcer reassuring us that ‘Persil washes whiter. That means cleaner’.

The morning after the first commercials appeared, Bernard Levin wrote in the Manchester Guardian:

I feel neither depraved nor uplifted by what I have seen… certainly the advertising has been entirely innocuous. I have already forgotten the name of the toothpaste.

The presenter commercial was a standard format arrived at very quickly. The presenter—often a personality with whom the viewers would be familiar from popular programmes or the theatre—would appear using the product and extolling its virtues, perhaps with the aid of a chart or ‘scientific’ demonstration. At the end, a sincere out-of-vision announcer would recap on why that presenter had chosen the product. It was a popular easy-to-write format that could be produced with minimal sets and therefore was cheap to make. Even so, many of the early presenters seemed to confuse shouting with communicating.

There were also experiments in the no-man’s-land between advertisement and editorial, with time spots and ad mags. In time spots the advertiser booked the station clock and tied in his product with the time announcement. ‘Time to light a red-and-white’, claimed one cigarette manufacturer. Other punctual advertisers were Ever-rite watches, Saxa Salt, Burberry’s and Aspro. The Independent Television Authority (ITA) regarded the time spots as annoying and abolished them in December 1960.

The advertising magazine ran for a few more years until 1963 when it too met its end. Created to encourage small advertisers who could not afford their own ad slot, they had a loose story format and each episode featured a collection of products. The most famous was Jim’s Inn, set in a pub with Jimmy and Maggie Hanley as the publicans.

Jim’s Inn first appeared in spring 1957 and ran for 300 editions. It relied on a strong and believable storyline, recognisable characters and the warm personality of the landlord. Wide ranges of products, from the familiar to the outlandish, were skilfully woven together each week. After the demise of the ad mag format, Jimmy Hanley appeared with Maggie running Jim’s stores in a series of adverts for Daz, continuing the successful mix of popular proprietor and ‘good’ advice.

Until the 1970s the advertisers’ approach was very much to tell the viewer why they should use that product. The style changed in the 1970s, with viewers being invited to share in the lifestyles and values of the characters using the product on screen. Whether as a result of the introduction of colour spurring people on to new heights of creativity, or simply because viewers were now television-literate and demanded higher production values, adverts in the 1970s were noticeably different from what went before.

The products advertised on television have changed over the years. In the 1950s advertising was dominated by soap powder and food advertising. Into the 1960s there was little car advertising (due to a secret cartel agreement between the manufacturers) and virtually no spirits advertising, for the same reason. The car manufacturer Datsun arrived from Japan in the 1970s and broke the cosy agreement between Ford, Vauxhall, Chrysler and British Leyland not to advertise.

The 1970s brought us the Smash Martians, the Heineken lager campaign and the Hamlet cigar adverts. Old favourites remained on the screen, often with a new twist to liven up a familiar product: thus Katie was sent to America with her family, letting her explain all about Oxo to her new American friends while giving an added gloss to a familiar product.

Newspapers started to use television. Prompted by the successful re-launch of the Sun with its enormous expenditure on live commercials, the Mirror followed suit.

Towards the end of the 1970s, corporate advertising started to appear. ICI were the first with ‘The Pathfinders’ and ‘Ideas in Action’ campaigns, adverts which used potent symbols of progress like Concorde to enhance their image.

In the 1980s advertising changed again. New outlets for the message arrived in the form of Channel 4 and breakfast television. But there were also cultural changes brought about by Thatcherism. The possibility of advertising on the BBC replacing the licence fee was strongly suggested by the Adam Smith Institute. It declared that moves must be made ‘away from the licence fee to other forms of finance… there can be little future for a system which discriminates against the paying viewer in favour of the decisions of the bureaucrat’. The report went on to recommend that cigarette advertising, banned in 1965, should be reinstated and that the ban on advertising of betting and other prohibited categories (e.g. undertakers, charities, religious institutions) be removed. The BBC still does not carry advertising and the ban on tobacco advertising remains in place. But the first advert for an undertaker appeared on 8 November 1993, during an early evening episode of You take the High Road and, since then, charities and even the Church of England have used television adverts to promote their cause.

Interactive adverts started to appear in the late 1980s. The first was an advert for Mazda cars. In this, viewers were instructed to video record the ad and play it back frame by frame. On doing so they were able to take part in a competition to win a Mazda car. First Direct have also run interactive adverts. They ran ads simultaneously on ITV and C4; by switching between the two channels, viewers could see either a positive or a negative outcome to the story. Both these examples are not truly interactive but they do force viewers to become more involved.

Television advertising has come a long way since 1955. Many products have disappeared from the screens and been replaced by ones undreamed of fifty-five years ago. But the great adverts live on in the viewer’s memory: Solvite’s flying man, Everest Double Glazing’s falling feather, Fiat’s robots. So too do their slogans: ‘The Esso sign means happy motoring’, ‘Don’t forget the Fruit Gums, Mum’ and ‘Beanz Meanz Heinz’.

Further reading

  • Jo Gable, The Tuppenny Punch and Judy Show: 25 Years of TV Commercials (London, Michael Joseph, 1980)
  • Brian Henry, British Television Advertising: the first 30 years (London, Ebury Press, 1986)
  • John Montgomery, Arthur, the television cat (London, W.H. Allen / Virgin Books, 1975)
  • Brian Sibley, The Book of Guinness Advertising (Gullane Children’s Books, 1985)
  • Nod Miller, And now for the BBC (London, 1991) chapter 3
  • Maire Messenger Davies, Television is Good for Your Kids (London, Hilary Shipman Ltd., 1989)
  • Maureen Lipman and Richard Phillips, You got an Ology? (London, Robson Books Ltd., 1989)
  • Judith Williamson, Decoding Advertisements: Ideology and Meaning in Advertising (London, Marion Boyars, 1978)
  • Hilary Kingsley and Geoff Tibballs, Box of Delights (London, Macmillan, 1989)
  • IBA/ITV Handbooks (published annually)
  • MEAL Analysis of Advertising Expenditure (monthly and annual surveys)
  • Campaign (a specialist weekly newspaper, often available in public libraries)

4 comments on “A short history of British television advertising

  1. Pingback: Homepage
  2. A friend of mine was an editor of a programme that promoted products.
    The set was rather like modern game shows the presenter a relatively large middle aged man with a huge mustashe I think his first name was Gilbert.
    Can you help me?

  3. We have three ads in an hour long programme and too many in a two hour prog. But my question is how many ads were there in the 60’s and 70’s. My brother says two! I do not remember so cannot comment. KR.

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