Saturday, 19 March 2016

A Cartoon Word From Our Sponsor

Television saved the animated cartoon industry in the 1950s.

Cartoons and other short subjects became to movie studios like an appendix to a human. They weren’t really needed. They didn’t bring in vast revenue. So studios sold TV distribution rights to companies that proceeded to make a killing off them, resulting in the creation of a whole new TV animation industry.

But cartoons got a boost from television in another way. They were perfect for advertising. TV was still fairly primitive in 1950. There weren’t all that many production facilities and the ones that existed were still tinkering to perfect the technical aspects of the medium. But cartoons had already been perfected. Veteran animators and layout men who knew their craft were looking for work. Cartoons didn’t involve building and lighting sets, blocking actors and so on. As a result, there were almost countless numbers of animated commercials on TV through the ‘50s.

Harry Wayne McMahan, formerly of animated TV producer Five Star Productions, wrote a book in 1954 on effective TV advertising, then enlarged and updated it in 1957. It has some wonderful reproductions of frames of commercials, including animated ones. Unfortunately in some cases he doesn’t reveal which studio was responsible for them. But allow me to pass on some that were identified.

Animation Inc. was run by Earl Klein, Storyboard was John Hubley’s company while Ed Gershman was in charge of Academy Pictures (with Bill Tytla as a vice-president for a time). Sam Nicholson was creative director at TV Spots at the time this book came out. There were many other studios, of course; these were among the West Coast commercial producers.

Here are some examples McMahon gives of styles.

Like everything else in popular culture, the animated commercial fell out of favour toward the end of the ‘50s. It, like just about all animation, was determined to be kiddie fare. Cartoon animals hawked breakfast cereal and not much else during time slots aimed at children. It’s too bad. There’s still a place for Bert and Harry expounding gleefully on the wonders of a really lousy regional beer.


  1. Ray Patin Productions animated the second opening title for the final season of Goodson-Todman's "THE NAME'S THE SAME" (1954-'55), sponsored by Ralston-Purina {"The Ralston-Purina Company of famous old Checkerboard Square, in St. Louis, Missouri.....Ralston- makers of Wheat Chex, Rice Chex, Ry-Krisp and Instant Ralston.....present---'THE NAME'S THE SAME'!"}. Academy Pictures produced the opening title for "THE ED SULLIVAN SHOW".

  2. Live-action TV commercials in the 1950s seemed to show their 'hard-sell' radio roots the most, as if any second off-message or attempting to be humorous was a second lost peddling the sponsor's wares. Animated ads, based on how people had come to view animated theatrical cartoons, didn't have the same type of restrictions and could actually try to entertain the audience while hawking the product.

    By the late 1950s, the live-action TV ads were starting to 'loosen up' and take a little lighter/more humorous tone as well, which may also explain the downturn in animated spots -- filming actors was going to cost less than paying people to animate them (especially if it was full animation), and viewers were showing they accepted real-life people pitching products without a 60-second harangue, so the live-action spots became more dominant.

    1. JL, I never thought of that, but yeah, those early live action ads were pretty much an announcer/actor urgently listing the benefits of a product, or warning what would happen if you didn't (eg. you'd be a crappy excuse of a housewife).

    2. The Lucky Strike ads on The Jack Benny Program may be the best example of the difference, since they were the hardest of the hard-sell until American Tobacco brought in "Happy Joe Lucky" and tried to go for a lighter (if not jokey) tone with either the full animation or the live-action animation mix.

  3. Any old guys out there remember Mike Nichols and Elaine May's Jax Beer animated commercials? God, they were funny! Our local weatherman could hardly get through his forecast after one of those spots. Outside of a few Youtube offerings, does anybody know if the Nichols-May ads are on any DVD compilations?