TELEVISION ADVERTISING IN THE 1950s
The controversy of AdMags
One of television's controversial talking points of the mid 1950s was the subject of ‘shoppers guides’ and ‘advertising documentaries’, aimed at those either not able to afford or unwilling to pay the price of a regular television advertisement. They began broadcasting almost as soon as the first commercial television companies began broadcasting. They consisted only of a personable 'presenter' describing a number of products, but as they grew in popularity they were expanded to last around fifteen minutes each and became programmes in their own right. They also became known as ‘Ad-Mags.’
In her 1980 publication ‘The Tuppenny Punch and Judy Show – 25 years of TV commercials’ – Jo Gable writes:
The admag was unique to Britain, and there was a kind of backdoor bravado about them in the way every admag transmission cheekily bumped up the amount advertising per clock hour. But viewers never complained. They loved the quaint little programmes, which provided the same fascination as flipping through a mail-order catalogue.
The very first Ad-Mag guide to appear was called ‘Elizabeth Goes Shopping’ and it was hosted by Elizabeth Allan who would visit the more upmarket London stores of the day such as the Oxford Street based Marshall and Snelgrove (who had merged with Debenham’s after the First World War but retained their name until the 1970s) and Harrods. Elizabeth Allen was already well known to viewers of the BBC and advertisers were quite keen to have their products demonstrated by familiar and trusted faces and as ITV was the new kid on the block this meant gainful employment for a number of established BBC presenters such as Sylvia Peters, MacDonald Hobley and Katherine (Katie) Boyle. One other Ad-Mag presenter that was to become familiar to ITV viewers (especially children) was Muriel Young.
Light entertainers such as Kenneth Horne, Richard Murdoch and Tommy Trinder were well known and well loved by the British public but where these top headliners could not be afforded, especially regionally, they were replaced by the kindly aunt or uncle type such as Jack Howarth, later to become a familiar face nationally as Jack Walker in 'Coronation Street.'
But of all the Ad-Mags there was one show that reigned supreme. ‘Jim’s Inn’ starred Jimmy and Maggie Hanley as a couple (as indeed they were in real life) who ran a village pub in fictitious Wembleham. Each week customers-played by Roma Cresswell, John Sherlock, Jack Edwardes, Diane Watts, Dennis Bowen, Ken Howard and Victor Platt-would come into the pub and over a pint discuss the price and quality of a variety of domestic products. Each 15-minute episode went out live, once a week, at 10:45pm and the series became almost something of a soap opera. Director Pat Baker claimed that it was the advertising that gave the series a sense of reality: "People do talk, in a village pub, about things like household or gardening gadgets, and how much they paid for them".
Bernard Bresslaw, Clive Dunn and Mario Fabrizi appeared in a comedy Ad-Mag for Harrison Gisbson’s department store. The day after the show went out the store noticed a sizable increase in business, but when one customer complained to the managing director about a store of Harrison Gibson’s high calibre being associated with such low comedy, the admags were summarily cancelled. Not everyone took such high moral ground and admags continued to be hugely popular attracting the likes of Marks and Spencer who ran fifteen-minute admags to promote their goods.
However, the shows soon came in for much criticism in a damning official report. In 1960 the Pilkington Committee was set up to report on British broadcasting and in particular the infant ITV industry, which although only five years old was by far the most popular of the two channels on British television (the BBC’s audience share was barely 25%). Of Ad-Mags the report stated that ‘Ad-Mags blur the distinction between programmes and advertisements. The Committee also complained that these programmes were, in fact, sponsored television, and although they were made by the programme companies ‘the impression made on the viewers’ was one of sponsorship. Lastly, the Committee felt that Ad-Mags increased the amount of television advertising time by more than was envisaged in the ITA Act. On all these grounds, therefore, the Committee ruled that advertising magazines should be abolished.
As Jo Gable points out ‘In the introduction to the Pilkington Report the Committee made it clear that it was within its power to recommend ITA completely restructure its television service, possibly doing without advertising revenue altogether. A scapegoat was needed, and with the grand sentiment of ‘We’re only doing it for your own good’ that pervades the report from beginning to end, the admags were sent into oblivion.’