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Famous commercials from the year you were born

  • Famous commercials from the year you were born

    On April 30, 1939, President Franklin Roosevelt addressed the nation. That was nothing new—unless you were one of the few thousand lucky people who instead of listening on the radio, watched the event live on the world's first television broadcast, which took place at the New York World's Fair in Flushing Meadows Park. A little more than two years later in 1941, four years before RCA manufactured the first mass-produced TV, the handful of Americans who did own one were treated to their first commercial break.

    Soon, millions of American households would welcome salespeople into their livings rooms via their televisions. In just two years between 1949 and 1951, TV ad spending grew more than tenfold from $12.3 million to $128 million, and then again multiplied nearly tenfold to $1 billion in 1955. By 1957, 450 stations were beamed to 37 million televisions from coast to coast and by the dawn of the 1960s, nine out of 10 American households were equipped with one of the bulky, glowing, furniture-encased boxes.

    Today, the television ad business is a $70 billion industry, and some of the biggest stars in the world earn more from their endorsement deals than they do from their day jobs. Over the years, commercials have reflected pop culture and steered it, launched fads, helped elect political candidates, sold government policies, and made fortunes for corporations, ad agencies, and celebrity pitchmen and pitchwomen. Here are some of the most famous ads, starting with the very first commercial, which aired before the United States entered World War II.

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  • 1941: Bulova Watch Co.

    On July 1, 1941, a television broadcast of the Philadelphia Phillies vs. the Brooklyn Dodgers was interrupted for an event that would change the course of history—sports history, television history, retail history, advertising history, and U.S. history. That day, the Bulova Watch Co. aired the world's first television commercial, which cost the company $9, including $5 in station charges and $4 in air charges.

  • 1942: Oldsmobile 60 B-44

    By 1942, the country was at war, and newsreels were dazzling theater patrons with impressive new footage of flying war machines like the B-17 Flying Fortress. In keeping with the national mood, Oldsmobile unveiled what it dubbed the 60 B-44, a car that Olds likened to U.S bomber planes with an ad that sold the machine on its heft, durability, and power.

  • 1943: A Present With a Future

    In 1943, war dominated the American consciousness, and Bette Davis was one of many stars who lent her celebrity to the cause. In a PSA titled "Present With a Future," the actress urged Americans to buy war bonds for Christmas instead of traditional gifts. When her kids griped that they wanted toys and a bike, Davis urged them to consider that her idea for a gift was much better because it would allow them to "celebrate future Christmases in peace."

  • 1944: Buick Liberator Engines

    By 1944, most American weren’t buying much of anything that wasn't necessary because vast resources were diverted to the war effort and frugality hadn't yet given way to the post-war boom years. Buick was one of the companies that played it smart by positioning itself as a luxury people would be able to afford once the war was won—and by reminding citizens of the role it was playing in the struggle. That year, the car company ran an ad explaining that "Buick powers the Liberator" and that "as of Sept. 1, 1944, Buick has built more than 55,000 Pratt & Whitney aircraft engines."

  • 1945: There Is Always Hope

    In 1945, Clarke Gable starred in a PSA for the March of Dimes. In soliciting donations, the movie star personalized the cause by showcasing one of the charity's potential benefactors, a "victim of infantile paralysis" named Bobby. Gable's appearance proved that the power of celebrity was as useful for raising money for philanthropic causes as it was for selling toasters, coffee, and cars.  

  • 1946: Cleanest Clean Under the Sun

    In 1946, Tide touted its detergent as offering "the cleanest clean under the sun." A clever play on words, the ad featured women hanging laundry on outside clotheslines on a beautiful sunny day, which tied the company's detergent to the unsullied freshness of the great outdoors.

  • 1947: The Elbow Tax

    Hard work in scrubbing has long been known informally as "elbow grease," which in 1947 Colgate vowed would no longer be necessary thanks to its new miracle cleaner, Ajax. The miniature cleaning pixies who appeared in that year's animated TV ad promised "you'll stop paying the elbow tax when you start cleaning with Ajax."

  • 1948: Whistle Up a Party

    Jax Beer, inventor of the six-pack, was among the last breweries built before Prohibition. The company's most significant contribution, however, came in 1948 when it released "Whistle Up a Party," the first commercial aimed at black America. The cast consisted entirely of refined and elegantly dressed African-Americans politely socializing in a nice home—something that was virtually unprecedented on television at the time.

  • 1949: What Cigarette Do You Smoke, Doctor?

    People trust doctors, so why wouldn't the masses in tobacco-crazed 1949 America want to emulate the smoking habits of the friendly neighborhood physician? Camel bet that they would, and launched a campaign that speaks volumes about the era: more doctors smoke Camels than any other brand.

  • 1950: It Floats

    In a positively bizarre commercial from 1950, Ivory sells its soap not on its power to clean or soften skin, but because it's tough to lose since it floats in the bathtub—and that's not the weird part. The famously odd commercial begins with a woman who plans to use the soap confessing her mental illness in a Victorian living room. It turns out both her pleasure-loving side and practical side enjoy a bath with Ivory.

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