Hitting the breaks

Television advertising has thrived on music, humour and celebrity endorsement, but now faces death by Sky+

It was a long, protracted and messy birth. Noisy, too, although much of the noise was coming from the great and the good - a very British body of opinion that took on the character of a doom-laden Greek chorus.

It was a long, protracted and messy birth. Noisy, too, although much of the noise was coming from the great and the good - a very British body of opinion that took on the character of a doom-laden Greek chorus.

As independent television prepared to make its UK entrance 50 years ago, Lord Reith told his fellow peers in the upper house: "Somebody introduced smallpox into England and somebody introduced bubonic plague and the Black Death. Somebody is trying now to introduce sponsored television."

Apart from anything else, his use of "sponsored" was misleading. It carried with it the suggestion that advertisers would have some influence over the making of programmes. What was being proposed in reality was "spot advertising", to be slotted into and around programmes. Proponents argued that the advertisers would have no more control over programming than they had on the editorial policy of a newspaper. Their money would simply help to finance a second channel to challenge the monopoly of the BBC.

As the corporation's first director general, Lord Reith might have been expected to be protective of his own baby. But his forebodings were widely shared, it seems. The debate preceding the Television Act of 1955 occupied more parliamentary time than any single Act of the 20th century, as Jeremy Bullmore points out in his book Behind the Scenes in Advertising.

Bullmore, still working at 75, is a phenomenon in an industry where the average age is 33. Having retired from J Walter Thompson in 1987, he was brought back by the new parent company, WPP, as a consultant with unparalleled experience. "I started as a junior copywriter in 1954, one year and one month before television advertising was launched," he recalls.

He also remembers being distinctly underwhelmed by the newcomer, like many another adman. ITV had far from national coverage at the time, he points out. "Eventually, there would be about 15 regional companies covering the whole country, but that would take quite a few years." In the mid-50s, moreover, television ownership was not widespread. Just over two million living rooms had sets for the coronation of Elizabeth II in 1953. By the first episode of Coronation Street, seven years later, there was a TV in 78 per cent of British households.

"The upper-middle classes thought television was vulgar," Bullmore muses. "They would have preferred to stick with the wireless. TV was for the servants, but it was considered okay to sneak into their quarters to watch during Wimbledon." Wealthier families who did own a set tended to keep it behind closed doors in a mahogany case.

There were no such qualms at the other end of the market. Advertising catch-phrases became common parlance by the late 1950s. Worked into the acts of variety performers and club comedians, they were guaranteed to raise a laugh. "You'll wonder where the yellow went when you brush your teeth with Pepsodent" lingered in the brain long after snatches of schoolboy Shakespeare had evaporated.

"Two distinct categories of commercial were coming out of the agencies," Bullmore recalls. "One was a prosaic attempt to convert print advertisements into television. The other recognised that TV was supposed to be entertainment. There were technical tricks, send-ups of game shows and plenty of jolly jingles." S H Benson, which later became part of Ogilvy and Mather, hired the songwriter Boogie Barnes as head of TV advertising. "Murray Mints, Murray Mints, too good to hurry mints" was one of his.

If the ads represented pure escapism, at least one of the programmes around them brought a grainy realism to British television. It's hard to exaggerate the impact made by Coronation Street when it was first broadcast on 9 December, 1960.

For the first time, working-class people saw themselves portrayed as flesh-and-blood characters rather than caricature figures of fun. The Street would confirm the five-year-old independent network's stature as a national broadcaster and, five decades on, it is still described as "the flagship of ITV programming" in a glossy new publication called How Much is it Worth? The Values of Fame. "This is the start of a marketing programme designed to re-engage the advertising community with television," says Justin Sampson, ITV's director of customer relations.

His ultimate customers are not just the ad agencies but the businesses that pay them to promote their products. There was widespread resentment among them at the above-inflation increases in airtime charges in the days when terrestrial television went unchallenged. Sampson is reluctant to comment on that, but he does concede: "One of the issues we have to deal with is the proliferation of new media. There has been a subtle erosion in the belief in TV as an advertising medium."

Hamish Pringle, director general of the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising, would go further and suggest that the notion of advertising-funded programming is under threat. Subsciption revenue far exceeds advertising as the main source of funding for Sky, he says. "Sky-plus is giving viewers the opportunity to skip the ads."

The fragmented market of multicultural, multichannel, multimedia modern Britain is very different from the more united kingdom that existed 50 years ago. Technology continues to drive the pace of change and Pringle predicts that more and more youngsters will watch TV on their mobilephones, opening up the possibility of bespoke advertising targeted at those who happen to be near a certain shop or restaurant.

He is also conscious of the ability of a well-made television advert to reach a mass market. On the wall of his office in Belgravia is a picture of Prunella Scales dressed up as Dotty in Tesco's hugely successful "Every Little Helps" campaign. The caption beneath claims that every £1 the supermarket spent on advertising generated an incremental £38 of turnover. In his book, Celebrity Sells, Pringle analyses the ad in some depth, and concludes: "The campaign paid for itself more than twice over, delivering a 225 per cent return on investment."

Fifty years ago, supermarkets were in their infancy on this side of the Atlantic and celebrity endorsement was largely confined to the cricketer Denis Compton promoting Brylcreem in newspapers and on billboards. Within 10 years, famous faces and supermarkets were calling the tune.

They drove television advertising forward," says Bullmore, "because they wouldn't give shelf space to products unless they were advertised on television."

Today, the power of the bigger retailers has increased immeasurably, and our culture is more obsessed with celebrity than ever. But one factor remains: a very good way of selling to the British is to make 'em laugh. "Unlike the Americans, we don't like the hard sell," says Bruce Haines, an executive with the top London agency Leo Burnett.

"We prefer to be tapped on the shoulder and seduced." Even by a dotty old woman with a supermarket trolley.

Suggested Topics
Alexis Sanchez has completed a £35m move to Arsenal, the club have confirmed
sportGunners complete £35m signing of Barcelona forward
Poor teachers should be fearful of not getting pay rises or losing their job if they fail to perform, Steve Fairclough, headteacher of Abbotsholme School, suggested
voicesChris Sloggett explains why it has become an impossible career path
world cup 2014
Ray Whelan was arrested earlier this week
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Arts and Entertainment
In a minor key: Keira Knightley in the lightweight 'Begin Again'
Arts and Entertainment
Celebrated children’s author Allan Ahlberg, best known for Each Peach Pear Plum
peopleIndian actress known as the 'Grand Old Lady of Bollywood' was 102
Wayne’s estate faces a claim for alleged copyright breaches
newsJohn Wayne's heirs duke it out with university over use of the late film star's nickname
Life and Style
It beggars belief: the homeless and hungry are weary, tortured, ghosts of people – with bodies contorted by imperceptible pain
lifeRough sleepers exist in every city. Hear the stories of those whose luck has run out
Mick Jagger performing at Glastonbury
Life and Style
fashionJ Crew introduces triple zero size to meet the Asia market demand
Santi Cazorla, Mikel Arteta and Mathieu Flamini of Arsenal launch the new Puma Arsenal kits at the Puma Store on Carnaby Street
sportMassive deal worth £150m over the next five years
Arts and Entertainment
Welsh opera singer Katherine Jenkins
musicHolyrood MPs 'staggered' at lack of Scottish artists performing
Life and Style
beautyBelgian fan lands L'Oreal campaign after being spotted at World Cup
Arts and Entertainment
Currently there is nothing to prevent all-male or all-female couples from competing against mixed sex partners at any of the country’s ballroom dancing events
Potential ban on same-sex partners in ballroom dancing competitions amounts to 'illegal discrimination'
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Media

Web / Digital Analyst - Google Analytics, Omniture

competitive: Progressive Recruitment: My client who are a leading publisher in...

Sales Perfomance Manager. Marylebone, London

£45-£57k OTE £75k : Charter Selection: Major London International Fashion and ...

Social Media Director (Global) - London Bridge/Southwark

£45000 - £50000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Social Media Director (Gl...

Personal and Legal Assistant – Media and Entertainment

£28,000 - £31,000: Sauce Recruitment: A Global media business based in West Lo...

Day In a Page

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting
Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

In the final part of our series, Chris Green arrives in Glasgow - a host city struggling to keep the politics out of its celebration of sport
Out in the cold: A writer spends a night on the streets and hears the stories of the homeless

A writer spends a night on the streets

Rough sleepers - the homeless, the destitute and the drunk - exist in every city. Will Nicoll meets those whose luck has run out
Striking new stations, high-speed links and (whisper it) better services - the UK's railways are entering a new golden age

UK's railways are entering a new golden age

New stations are opening across the country and our railways appear to be entering an era not seen in Britain since the early 1950s
Conchita Wurst becomes a 'bride' on the Paris catwalk - and proves there is life after Eurovision

Conchita becomes a 'bride' on Paris catwalk

Alexander Fury salutes the Eurovision Song Contest winner's latest triumph
Pétanque World Championship in Marseilles hit by

Pétanque 'world cup' hit by death threats

This year's most acrimonious sporting event took place in France, not Brazil. How did pétanque get so passionate?
Whelks are healthy, versatile and sustainable - so why did we stop eating them in the UK?

Why did we stop eating whelks?

Whelks were the Victorian equivalent of the donor kebab and our stocks are abundant. So why do we now export them all to the Far East?
10 best women's sunglasses

In the shade: 10 best women's sunglasses

From luxury bespoke eyewear to fun festival sunnies, we round up the shades to be seen in this summer
Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014: Lionel Messi? Javier Mascherano is key for Argentina...

World Cup final: Messi? Mascherano is key for Argentina...

No 10 is always centre of attention but Barça team-mate is just as crucial to finalists’ hopes
Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer knows she needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

18-year-old says this month’s Commonwealth Games are a key staging post in her career before time slips away
The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

The German people demand an end to the fighting
New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
Can scientists save the world's sea life from

Can scientists save our sea life?

By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

Richard III review

Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice