The world’s first television commercial aired on July 1, 1941, before the beginning of a baseball game in New York between the Brooklyn Dodgers and Philadelphia Phillies.
The commercial aired on NBC’s WNBT-TV, was only 10 seconds long, and was an advertisement for Bulova watches. It cost the company a total of $9. Five dollars went to station charges, and four dollars went to airtime charges.
The advertisement was simple. It showed a black and white picture of the United States, minus Hawaii and Alaska since they were not part of the union yet, and had a clock face with the words “Bulova” and “Clock Time.” A voiceover was done by NBC staff radio announcer Ray Forrest that said, “America runs on Bulova time.” It’s believed the commercial was only seen by a few thousand people in the market who happened to have a television at the time.
This particular advertisement wasn’t the first commercial to air on television, however, but it was the first legal commercial. NBC ran test commercials in 1939 during a Brooklyn Dodgers game, but this was before the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) allowed networks to charge for commercial time in May 1941. These commercials were considered “experimental” and part of already established radio buys. This got NBC out of paying any FCC fines.
Radio advertising continued to dominate for years following the first television commercial but was eventually eclipsed by television ads and became the $75 billion market it is today. The average cost now for a 30 second commercial during prime time is around $112,000, with the price going much higher depending on the popularity of the program or the event. Super Bowl 54 in 2020 cost advertisers an average of $5.6 million for a 30-second spot. Things have changed a lot since that first 10-second commercial.