A Brief History of TV Advertising

A Brief History of TV Advertising
By Madhive Marketing
July 31, 2023

Journalist Cleo Abrams reminds us that advertising as we know it today had to be invented — and it has certainly come a long way since the first newspaper ads in 1833.

Relatively speaking, TV advertising is pretty new! But a lot has changed since the invention of the television set — from the first broadcast TV commercial to today’s streaming TV ads, served up to targeted audiences with measurable results.

Check out some of the key moments in TV history that have shaped the industry as it exists today.

History of television advertising timeline

TL:DR Here's a quick timeline to help you visualize the history of TV advertising.

history of television advertising timeline

Inventing a new media format for advertising

A 21-year-old inventor named Philo Farnsworth invented the television in 1927, but it took at least a decade to perfect the TV set. Then it took several more years to make the television a household staple. 

In 1939, the first broadcast TV program aired, and the first licensed TV commercial hit airwaves in 1941. 

The very first TV commercial

Bulova, an American watch manufacturer founded in 1875, paid for the first advertisement aired on television. The ad aired in New York City to an audience of fewer than 4,000 households and delivered a simple message in the 10-second spot:

America runs on Bulova time.

The first TV commercial for the Bulova watch aired in black and white with a 10-second run time. It cost somewhere between $4.00 and $9.00. Bulova was also the first company to run an advertisement on the radio in 1927. 

It seems this legacy watchmaker was a trendsetter in the evolution of advertising media. 

The 1950s bring regulation to TV advertising

As television sets became more common, advertisers grew eager to get involved. Automobile manufacturers, cleaning products, over-the-counter medicine, and tobacco products were all vying for attention. Between sponsored programs, spot commercials, and primetime placements, viewers were exposed to an increasing number and frequency of television ads.

In fact, the first Coca-Cola TV sponsorship aired in 1950:

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) responded by tightening regulations on TV advertising. The goal was to strike a balance between programming and advertising. 

These regulatory changes included:

  • Transparency in sponsorship interests

  • Promoting socially responsible advertising practices

  • Restricting indecency

  • Presenting controversial issues with fairness

The average prime-time placement for tv advertising in the 1950s cost between $4k-$10k depending on the length.

Cable TV expands viewing (and advertising) options

The first cable TV network launched in Pennsylvania in 1952. And ten years later, in 1962, the Communications Satellite Act was signed into law. This act expanded viewership across the nation and made cable TV the home of network programming — with premium advertising opportunities. 

Networks like Home Box Office (HBO) and Showtime revolutionized TV advertising with early forms of subscription-based models. These models offered targeted advertising to highly engaged audiences. In tandem with new video recording technologies in the 1980s, these offerings drove advertisers to focus on delivering more creative campaigns. 

During this period, TV advertisers experimented with:

  • Short-duration, high-impact formats using 15-second commercials

  • Catchy jingles like the Oscar Mayer Wiener song

  • Celebrity endorsements

  • Product demonstrations and infomercials

  • Humor and comedy

The 1980s bring around-the-clock advertising

Hair wasn’t the only thing that was BIG in the 1980s—so were the new opportunities for advertising on television. 

Network news channel CNN launched 24-hour programming at the start of the decade (1980). This spawned a frenzy of ways to advertise on TV. Continuous broadcasting meant new slots for commercials available around-the-clock. It also helped media outlets segment their audiences, which in turn helped advertisers target based more contextually. 

For example, advertisers could choose ad slots during political programming, business, sports, entertainment and more. 

CNN’s shift to 24-hour coverage also gave advertisers access to a global audience, reaching viewers across time zones through a variety of formats. Advertisers could now choose from breaking news sponsorships, on-screen graphics, interactive overlays, and more. 

An important moment in the history of TV advertising: CNN's first broadcast.

Image: Husband and wife team of Dave Walker and Lois Hart co-anchor CNN's first broadcast on June 1, 1980. Source: CNN

These opportunities were quickly followed by the launch of MTV in 1981, which changed how viewers consumed and engaged with broadcast content. Call-in shows, live requests, and contests gave advertisers a targeted audience with peak engagement. Celebrity endorsements and innovative commercial formats — like visually dynamic music videos instead of traditional narrated commercials — characterized a time of transformative change for TV advertising.

Super Bowl ad puts Apple on the map

While the first Super Bowl was in 1967, the commercials weren’t any different from regular TV ads of the time. That all began to change after Apple’s “1984” Super Bowl ad, which aired during Super Bowl XVIII.

Directed by Ridley Scott, the ad introduced the Macintosh computer and is considered a watershed moment in advertising history.

Apple wanted the Mac to symbolize the idea of empowerment, with the ad showcasing the Mac as a tool for combating conformity and asserting originality. Based on George Orwell’s dystopian novel “1984”, the ad defied the norms of traditional Super Bowl commercials, which were typically light-hearted and focused on promoting products directly. 

Apple's ad took a cinematic approach, using storytelling, symbolism, and visual effects to convey a powerful brand message.

The "1984" ad propelled Apple into the public consciousness and demonstrated the potential of TV commercials to engage audiences emotionally. It also sparked a shift in the industry toward more innovative and impactful TV advertising strategies.

New technologies reshape viewer behavior

At the turn of the century, new technologies set off a chain reaction of change in how marketers use TV commercials. It all started with TiVo in 2000—when viewers were given the power to opt out of viewing commercials. 

As you can imagine, the TV advertising industry was up in arms with TiVo’s DVR technology. But as Tara Maitra, then TiVo VP of Ad Sales and Content Services, explained in 2010, DVR wasn’t going anywhere. Brands and advertising agencies alike had to adapt to a new world of interactive TV.

“You can point to a few agencies and a few individuals within those agencies who are willing to accept that this is happening and to test,” said Maitra. “But it's a big struggle communicating it because it's much easier to bury your head in the sand and kind of not deal with it right now and say, well, TiVo is small, it'll go away. But…DVRs are absolutely not going away.”

Over the next few years, the internet also evolved, and suddenly the bandwidth could support high-resolution media. In 2005, YouTube changed the way viewers consumed media, giving us an introduction to user-generated content. And in 2007, Netflix launched its innovative, on-demand streaming service that would spawn a new era of over-the-top (OTT) and connected TV (CTV) media.

Cord-cutters ditch cable, flock to digital video

Between faster internet connections and devices with better resolutions, the world was finally ready for connected TVs and OTT devices that could connect a TV to the internet. This development effectively redefined TV advertising with all new capabilities to engage, entertain, track, optimize, and target with precision. 

By 2010, Roku and AppleTV debuted smart TVs. 

By 2012, social media platforms had entered the video streaming arena, offering new channels for traditional TV advertisers to air commercials. 

And by 2015, streaming services like Netflix and Amazon were in full swing. These streaming services ate up market share as viewers dumped their cable subscriptions in favor of lighter, more flexible streaming options. Adoption spread like wildfire, averaging 47% YoY increases in growth.

Adoption of connected TV (CTV) and over-the-top (OTT) streaming, paired with advancements in ad tech, hit warp speed in 2020 as the world went remote. For more than a year, shelter-in-place orders kept everyone at home — and in front of their screens.

This big shift in how the world interacts forced big changes that fundamentally changed how the TV ad industry operated. 

In just the last few years, we’ve seen disruptions from every corner of TV advertising. New analytics platforms, real-time data, automated optimization, personalized recommendations, and interactive ad experiences are all shaking up the industry. 

Adam Helfgott, Founder & Chairman of Madhive, stated:

“As TV moves from one-to-many linear into IP-delivered digital, it's an opportunity to create one to one messaging between the brand messenger and the consumer, and the true buyer and seller."

The history of television advertising meets the present

A lot has changed during 100 years’ worth of TV advertising history. 

We’ve seen the duration of commercials go up and down — anywhere between 10 seconds and 10 minutes. We’ve seen trends like sponsored programming, interactive ads, and catchy jingles blip onto (and off of) the radar. And we’ve seen a lot of change in how viewers access media, shaping when, where, and how advertisers can reach those viewers. 

What does TV advertising look like today? Check out TV Advertising in 2024: All About Your Options.

You might also want to learn more about CTV advertising or OTT advertising.