by Ray Setterfield
September 22, 1955 — The first ever advertisement on British television appeared on this day. It went out at 8.12pm during a broadcast from London’s Guildhall of a dinner to celebrate the launch that day of the Independent Television network (ITV). Until then the BBC held an uncontested monopoly on broadcasting.
Under the umbrella of the Independent Television Authority, four major companies – Granada, ABC, ATV and Associated-Rediffusion – set about challenging the BBC’s supremacy. One of their first targets was the “Toddlers’ Truce” – an established arrangement whereby all television broadcasts were banned between 6pm and 7pm so that parents could more easily put their children to bed!
The truce meant that the BBC – funded then, as today, by a television licence fee – could save money by reducing its hours of transmission. The fledgeling independent companies, on the other hand, were hit by the loss of an hour’s advertising revenue each day and they fought for abolition of the policy.
The BBC would have none of it, nor would it agree to reduce the truce to 30 minutes. In the end a senior politician settled the dispute. The now defunct ministerial post of Postmaster General was held at the time by Charles Hill whose responsibilities included broadcasting.
He said of the “Toddlers’ Truce”: “This restriction seemed to me absurd and I said so. It was the responsibility of parents, not the state, to put their children to bed at the right time. I invited the BBC and the ITA to agree to its abolition.”
When no agreement was reached, Hill took the issue to Parliament and MPs voted for abolition in October 1956. The two broadcasting sides then squabbled over a date, leaving Hill to pick Saturday February 16, 1957.
That first TV ad was for Gibbs SR toothpaste – a product described as “tingling fresh”. To reinforce the message, the ad showed a tube of the toothpaste enclosed in a block of ice in a shimmering stream. TV presenter Alex Macintosh announced: "The tingling fresh toothpaste that does your gums good too. It's tingling fresh. It's fresh as ice. It's Gibbs SR toothpaste."
It was not only the first TV ad, it was also the first ad to use trickery. Brian Palmer, then a 26-year-old advertising executive who wrote and produced it, admitted years later that although a block of ice was used in the long shots, the “ice” was in fact plastic for closer work.
“The lights they used in those days were very hot indeed, and ice would have melted very quickly, so we used a plastic block for the close-ups,” he said.
The ‘SR’ in the name of the toothpaste referred to sodium ricinoleate, its active ingredient, which is the sodium salt of ricinoleic acid, the principal fatty acid derived from castor oil. Though the name was changed in the 1990s to Mentadent SR, the product continued to be marketed worldwide by its owners, Unilever, until 2018 when it was discontinued.
The arrival of TV advertising in 1955 led to protests by church leaders, teachers, academics and politicians, some of them condemning it as “crass and vulgar.”
Labour MP John Wilmot went further. He declared in Parliament that "the nightly poison of advertising which boosts the sale of goods to the working class is against the national interest".
Published: September 15, 2021
Updated: October 19, 2022
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