Media History Exchange, 2018 Joint Journalism and Communication History Conference

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“The Advertising Agency BBDO in Early Television”
Cynthia Meyers

Last modified: 2018-01-25


Although there is much excellent scholarship in television history, little has been written about the role of advertising agencies in the development of television as a mass commercial medium. For this presentation, I rely on a private archive, held by Batten, Barton, Durstine & Osborn (BBDO), one of the top advertising agencies of the twentieth century, to analyze an ad agency’s role in early television.


In the 1930s and 1940s most national network radio programs were actually produced by ad agencies for their clients, the sponsors. BBDO, for example, produced the radio programs Cavalcade of America for Du Pont and Theatre Guild on the Air for US Steel. Beginning in the 1930s, BBDO collaborated with General Electric to experiment with television. By 1951, BBDO was producing television programs such as Lucky Strike’s Your Hit Parade, Armstrong’s Circle Theatre, and The Betty Crocker Show for General Mills. In 1952, BBDO produced a television program for the Eisenhower campaign that was aired the night before the election.


By the mid-1950s, however, BBDO gave up television program production duties but maintained oversight and script control while producing the commercials, as well as negotiating airtime scheduling and prices. BBDO soon became one of the top three ad agencies in television.


BBDO’s hidden role helped shape network television into the largest mass advertising medium. By recasting the agency’s role in broadcasting, BBDO developed ideas about how to use television as an advertising medium for both corporate image clients, such as General Electric Theater, and packaged goods accounts, such as Lassie for Campbell’s Soup. By the end of the 1950s, television accounted for the majority of BBDO’s revenues and BBDO became a leader in developing television commercial strategies.


By relying on hitherto unexplored private archival documents, including the agency’s internal newsletters, memos and interviews with top executives, as well as trade press coverage, this presentation will provide new insights into the history of broadcasting, emphasizing how advertising agencies in shaped network television.

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