Two summers ago Perry Miller suggested that Madison Avenue be razed from 42nd to 57th Streets. This would eliminate most of the great advertising agencies, decimate the radio and television networks, and destroy the headquarters (at 44th Street) of the legendary Gray Flannel Suit.
But it would not lead to the disappearance of the commercialism which Madison Avenue has come to symbolize. There have even been recent indications that the Avenue itself is restive about the present situation. The workers in mass media labor to produce what the Germans call kitsch, vulgarization of the better elements in a native culture.
The fact that such a program as "The Firestone Hour" is pressured by NBC to relinquish a popular program time because of low viewer appeal, is an indication of the dilemma in which media executives find themselves. Luckily for those who like classical music, the Firestone Rubber Company's advertising is largely institutional and low-pressure; this and the loyalty of its viewers insured that it would be kept in its Monday night spot.
But other corporations are not so benevolent. The Timex Watch Company last week dropped its sponsorship of Bob Hope's program because the comedian appeared on a show in which a Bulova commercial came on before, not after, the station break. This supposedly associated Hope's name with that of a rival company. In such an atmosphere, programming--in fact a personality--becomes merely an effective way of selling, thus precluding any originality or inventiveness which might endanger this ability.
Arthur Godfrey, for this reason, became a minor czar of the TV world, because--in the words of one advertising executive--"He can sell 'em anything." The biggest hit song this year is "You'll wonder where the yellow went."
Reacting against this tendency, Piel's Inc. recently instituted a series of cartoon ads featuring Harry and Bert, which attempted a "soft sell." These proved popular enough to inspire imitators, but there was a limit to the trend. It was easy enough to be amusing about beer, but hard to "soft sell" a product such as aspirin or laxatives. The public must be shown what misery results when these aids are not employed, and consequently, schematic diagrams of digestive systems are exhibited with appropriate sound effects.
The "hard sell" is therefore thought necessary, and in the fierce competition loyalty to one's sponsor is more vital than talent. Ed Sullivan is rarely photographed far from a Lincoln automobile, and Eddie Fisher spent the second day of his honeymoon campaigning for CocaCola.
A constant game of musical chairs is being played by corporations with large advertising accounts, and to please the sponsor, program directors beam their shows at the all-important mythical twelve-year-old mind. There are exceptions of course: "Twentieth Century," a new documentary series, is one. The Prudential Insurance Company recently cancelled a commercial so that the effectiveness of a dramatization of Winston Churchill's life would not be impaired. ALCOA and U.S. Steel are disinterested sponsors who usually do not attempt to interfere with the program.
But the typical sponsor wants results on a sales chart, and employs rating services which assure him that the viewers are getting his message. "Spectaculars" are one result of this. A light children's tale such as "Pinocchio" is transformed into a tasteless extravaganza punctuated with wisecracks. Another result is to force a comedian such as Sid Caesar, with reasonably esoteric appeal, off the air. Public service programs also suffer. ABC-TV was the only network to cover the recent Senate Labor Investigations; the other two networks had too many commercial commitments to do so. Because there is no ABC station in Boston, it could not be seen here.
Some see the way out of this wilderness in unsponsored subscription TV. But General David Sarnoff, president of RCA, says that the prospect of viewers in three million homes placing dollars in coin boxes to see a program would be so attractive that all good programs would go under this system, and substantial free entertainment would end. It is too easy to blame Madison Avenue for commercialism. The Avenue is merely the tool of the corporations which it serves. To decry commercialism is to decry the present American spirit.