Don’t you just hate ads? I know I do, and that’s coming from someone that sells them. 50% of all advertising is pure garbage and I’ll exclude certain branding and companies from my life just as a result of those ads. 25% of advertising isn’t bad and I would posit we don’t notice the other 25%.
But on the majority, ads are annoying. But they make up such a huge portion of our lives they now effectively subsidize it. They’re on buses (cheaper fares), online (free blogs), on sports jerseys (cheaper tickets), in movie theatres (okay I already said cheaper tickets… cheaper popcorn?), pretty much everywhere you can imagine. If it’s not outright advertising, it’s at least branding (think gas stations: “there’s a BP down the street”).
But in reality the most annoying type of advertising is the commercial. Commercials almost always interrupt some type of media consumption you were enjoying before the local sketchy car dealer tells you “no credit no problem!”. Nowhere is the commercial more prevalent today than in television. The typical hour of programming has 18 minutes of commercials.
So that got me thinking about who was responsible for creating the first commercial. And that got me thinking about why it’s called a commercial at all. Commercial is a term we generally use when talking about business. A commercial banker, or commercial fisherman, or commercial software. The term commercial only collides with the main street consumer in the form of advertising.
Well that’s originally how it started. It was called commercial advertising. The ad buyer would work with a commercial broadcaster to buy time on air for pimp their new shampoo. So what’s the difference between a broadcaster and a commercial broadcaster? Hope back in the time machine.
Back in the early days of radio the main function was to communicate back and forth one on one or in a small group. This was called ham radio or amateur radio. It operated on low frequency bands. But as the use of radio spread to governmental, public, and private use, the need to differentiate broadcasters became more evident. Commercial radio developed as a way to classify those broadcast stations that are doing this as a business. The practice of selling advertising became blurred with commercial, and the term commercials was born.
That’s the origin of the word, but not the actual commercial format itself. That is thanks to radio as well. Like I said, radio started out as a hobbyist activity. But one ham radio guy had fun playing his favorite tunes over the airwaves and happened to work for Westinghouse, which made radios. Westinghouse thought it would be a great idea to set up a station with some content that people wanted to hear (they were one of the first to beat newspapers reporting election results). This would drive up demand for the radios. That station was called KDKA. This station still exists today.
But they weren’t the first to sell advertising. That happened a couple of years later when WEAF in New York sold airtime to someone that wanted to promote some apartments. This pretty much changed everything for radio and the business model it was built on. Television came later but unlike radio, it was designed from the start with advertising in mind. And now we have an industry that fills up hours of our day with ads to buy Toyotas, Tide detergent, and AT&T Wireless.
So while Westinghouse perhaps gets credit (though it’s argued) for setting up a radio station to make a profit, it was WEAF that really focused on selling airtime to other businesses to sell their products to the listeners. And so who gets credit for the first real commercial? Who owned WEAF?
That’s right, one of the biggest advertisers in the US is responsible for the first commercial. They created the commercial broadcast advertising business model and then exited the industry, only to become one of its biggest customers.
AT&T sold WEAF to what became NBC. NBC closed down the station in 1988, but the damage was already done. So if you want to blame someone, there’s a halfway decent chance the people that invented the commercial are the same people that are delivering this post to you now.
Now, if you want to talk about “sponsored” content you have to go back a lot further than radio.
Special thanks to NPR (that’s PUBLIC radio) for providing the background on WEAF and the inspiration for this post: First Radio Commercial Hit Airwaves 90 Years Ago