It would be hard to overstate the impact TV commercials have had on business and culture around the world. In the United States, television ads generate tens of billions of dollars every year and reach their pinnacle at the Super Bowl. As with every powerful force, though, there’s a humble origin story behind today’s polished spots. And it played out 75 years ago Friday.
On July 1, 1941, the NBC-owned station WNBT in New York aired the first legal commercial in television history. Advertising was banned on TV until the Federal Communications Commission gave commercial licenses to 10 stations on May 2, 1941, to go into effect July 1. As Quartz points out, WNBT was the only one to air an ad on that day.
The commercial played before a Brooklyn Dodgers–Philadelphia Phillies game at Ebbets Field. Ad Age reported in 1995 that it was a brief spot called the “Bulova Time Check,” which showed a watch face with the second hand ticking while a voice-over read the time. Bulova paid $4 for air fees plus $5 for station fees. At $147.08 in 2016 dollars, it was really a steal. Ad Age notes that there were about 4,000 televisions total in the New York area at that time.
You can watch a version of the ad above that features an image of the contiguous U.S. overlaid by a watch face. The voice-over says, “America runs on Bulova Time.” Actually, these days, it mostly still runs on ads.