Thursday, April 8, 2010

The Television Commercial

Sometime in the last 15 years I picked up the 1957 book "The Television Commercial: How To Create and Produce Effective TV Advertising" by Harry Wayne McMahan. It was published by Hastings House, this copy is ex libris Elweita Schultz Advertising, San Antonio.

It's loaded with images from commercial animation of its day. We'll be posting these over the next few weeks.  Lots from John Hubley's Storyboard, Inc.,  UPA, and other production outfits of the 1950s.

First, to start with the chapter "Cartoon: The Universal Language"

Full text by Mr. McMahan below. (we won't transcribe the text with pictures -click images to enlarge and read).


Cartoons are the universal language, understood from Times Square to Timbuctoo. Cartoons are fun.

In television commercials, the animated cartoon has often the highest viewer interest, the longest life and the lowest cost-per showing. Yet it remains the most misused and abused technique in the business.

Cartoon is no cure-all. It has its limitations.

It wins quickest interest, but it lacks depth of penetration. In the movie theater, the audience likes and laughs at the cartoon, but it is emotionally moved by the live action dramatic feature. Mickey Mouse entertains, then passes from the mind, but Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde tells a never-to-be-forgotten story which personally involves the viewer.


From a psychological standpoint, the cartoon is primitive, child-like in imagination. The cartoon is not you, it is someone else.

When it becomes too rational and tries to depict actual people in normal activities, it becomes unbelievable.

"Animation sacrifies credibility", reports an audience test comparing cartoon and live action commercials for Esso gasoline.

The cartoon always makes the viewer the bystander. He can see "the other fellow" in the cartoon situation, but he finds it difficult to picture himself. He never feels the personal involvement that he does in live action -and this is a clue to the failure of many cartoon commercials to do the best selling job in television.

"People enjoy the antics of cartoon characters by they don't believe them," a Colgate TV advertising manager once pointed out. "As a result we always follow a cartoon commercial with real people doing the same thing and repeating the plug. Our tests have proved that only with such treatment are viewers sold on the product."


Experience teaches that the cartoon in television commercials is best for:

Gaining Interest, even as a the flashing of a cartoon title on the screen wins theater applause. The S. O. S. Magic Bunny was built on this factor, for example.

Trademark Characters, actual or devised. The Carnation "Milk Drop" is an example of a cartoon character devised to fit the product. Invariably, though, cartoon characters are better when animal-like than person-like -when designed for trademarks.

Personalizing the Product, such as a car. A cartoon auto can typify many models in used car commercials. Likewise a can of coffee or a jar of mayonnaise can be brought to life and given personality with a cartoon "face".

Exaggeration and Fantasy, because cartoon can stimulate imagination more broadly than any other technique. A fresh egg can fly to market. A dog can walk and talk like a man. The artist's pencil can be Aladdin's lamp.

Singing Jingles, because cartoon and rhythm go together like ham and eggs and he public does not readily tire of them. Cartoon jingles have the longest life expectancy of any type of television commercial


There are three grades or subdivisions in the cartoon technique:
1) full animation
2) limited animation
3) "grow" or "scratch-off" cartoon.

Each grade decreases in cost -and effectiveness.

Full animation costs an average of $90 per foot, but this may run as high as $200 per foot on complex productions. As many as seven artists work on each frame of full animation and since there are 24 frames required per second, 1,400 drawings may be required for a minute commercial/

What moves governs the cost of the cartoon, because more hand-labor is required as the amount of movement and the number of characters on the screen increase.

Most producers figure the cost of cartoons according to "units" of animation. If one simple character moves while the rest of the scene is static, it is "one unit". If two characters move at the same time, it becomes "two units". A quartet becomes "four units" and the price goes up.


A wise animation director can save money in the layout of a commercial by concentrating animation at the points most vital to viewer interest and the sales story.

His knowledge -or the same knowledge in the mind of the creative writer -makes use of such devices as "cycles" and "free footage".

A "cycle" is repeat animation, such as a horse running in constant stride, parallel to the camera. The same sequence of pictures is photographed again and again. "Free footage" is a non-animated portion where the camera does the movement, such as moving along...

...a static landscape to a house, where the door suddenly bursts open and the animation begins.

The planning of cartoons is the most complex, the least understood phase of the television commercial.  Since few writers understand the potential cost factors, competent advice should be secured in the very earliest stages of planning.


Limited animation costs about half as much as full animation.  It is "limited" in the action and movement of characters on the screen.  To be effective, it must make full use of "cycles" and "free footage".  It often shows only extremes of expression and gives the illusion of action by dissolving or cross-fading in the camera from one extreme to the other.  Camera movement is directed to the fullest and various lens tricks add to the effect.

Often limited animation scenes can be cut in with full animation to meet a given budget, but it must be planned ingeniously.

"Grow" cartoons cut the cost in two again.  This type of animation is also called "scratch off", because it works with one single drawing, photographed in reverse as the lines are scratched off on successive frames.  When projected in the opposite direction, the cartoon or sketch appears to "grow" or be drawn upon the screen.

The curiosity factor or "magical quality" of what the artist might be drawing is the secret of the success of this trick technique.  But, when the drawing is completed, it needs to go to full animation or the viewer attention will wane as the movement stops.


If your product is an "impulse" item or if you only require name identification, cartoon can do the job alone.  But if the viewer must rationalize the buying of  your product, cartoon needs the realistic support of live action.  The two can be combined effectively.

Cartoon can gain interest and entertain, but it takes live action to make the story believable and personalize it to the viewer's experience.

Demonstration films especially need to combine the two.  However, all-cartoon spots can be made when the viewer already has been exposed to the necessary live action demonstration in previous commercials.

Pet Milk has used all-cartoon minute spots to supplement their live action series.  Previous films had utilized live action to demonstrate Pet's three uses of infant feeding, cooking and creaming coffee.  Then it was decided that cartoon could best combine all three uses in an imaginative saga of "Pet Milk Pete" and his storyt I Grew Up on Pet.

In the final analysis, remember: cartoons are fun.  If you can sell your product with fun alone, the you sell it with cartoon alone.  If you need to get serious, if you need to convince, you had better back up your sales story with live action.

above: images from Ray Patin Production and Academy Pictures, Inc.

above: images from Storyboard, Inc and UPA
above: images from TV Spots, Inc. and Animation, Inc.

1 comment:

Delsin Elu said...

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