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Watch: The first TV commercial, which aired 75 years ago today

Evert F. Baumgardner/National Archives and Records Administration/Wikimedia Commons
Behold, the ad that changed it all.
  • Ashley Rodriguez
By Ashley Rodriguez


Published This article is more than 2 years old.

It was July 1, 1941. The Brooklyn Dodgers were facing off against the Philadelphia Phillies at Ebbets Field in New York. Before the first pitch was broadcast on NBC-owned WNBT (now WNBC), the first true TV commercial aired in the US.

It was a short, simple spot for Bulova Watch Co. It focused on a watch as the second hand ticked, and a voiceover told viewers what time it was, according to Ad Age. It cost the company just $9: $4 in air charges and $5 in station charges, the publication reported.

Later iterations of the Bulova campaign looked like this:

The original advertisement kicked off an industry that has grown to generate tens of billions of dollars a year over the last 75 years. These days, national TV commercials cost around $8,000 on average, while an ad during the biggest TV showcase of the year—the Super Bowl—costs around $5 million for 30 seconds.

US TV networks weren’t allowed to run commercials before 1941, but that didn’t stop some from experimenting with ads. An NBC announcer read messages for sponsors like Procter & Gamble and General Mills during broadcasts in 1939. Lexington, Massachusetts-based station W1XAV was reportedly censured for experimenting with something similar in 1930.

In May 1941, the Federal Communications Commission issued commercial licenses to 10 US stations, including WNBT, which went into effect on July 1. WNBT was the only station to air a commercial that day, said TV history buff Bobby Ellerbee of History was made.

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