Karl Cohen


by Karl Cohen

A two-year search for the answer to a simple question, "What was the first animated television commercial?", led to a great deal of information about the studios and people who produced thousands of animated ads in the 1940s. Except for articles in obscure trade publications of that period, writers have ignored this topic, erroneously said nothing existed, or have barely touched upon the subject. Until now, nobody has had much understanding of the pioneers who founded what became a multi-million dollar industry.

The lack of knowledge about the early TV ad business is evident in many sources. A college textbook written by two media experts in 1976 explains because video tape was unknown before the late 1950s, all programs were presented live, as were the commercials. Another book gives different misinformation: according to The Best Things on TV: Commercials, in 1948, when TV first started to reach a large audience, commercials went over the air live . . . the mistakes and mishaps were nightmarish for advertisers . . . fed up, ad agencies turned to film in the mid-Fifties. My research, however, has shown that film was used in television advertising well before the dates indicated by these sources.

To find out how and when the animated TV commercial got its start, I interviewed a number of people who were working in the industry in the 1940s, including Alex Anderson, Howard Beckerman, Lee Blair, Preston Blair, Shamus Culhane, Gene Deitch, Chad Grothkopf, Bert Hecht, David Hilberman, Bill Hurtz, Noran Kersta, Herb Klynn, Douglas Leigh, Jim Logan, Zack Schwartz, Saul Taffet, and Jack Zander. Many trade publications of the period were scanned from cover to cover. The one that proved to be most useful was Television Magazine. The New York Times, Variety and Printer s Ink were also valuable sources of information.


Theatrical cartoons were shown on television as early as 1930 but--due to production costs--animation was rarely made for TV during its years as a non-commercial, experimental medium. There were, however, some exceptions, including a Christmas greeting made by Norman McLaren for NBC in 1939. It was not until the 1940s, however, that animated ads came about.

People are generally surprised to learn that television ads date back to 1941. The government allowed NBC to go commercial (to charge for ads) on 1 July of that year. Some promotions were even shown before that date, but they were not paid commercials: they were experiments, created so potential sponsors could see how ads might look on TV once it went commercial. Botany Mills was the only television sponsor known to have produced ads on film that year, and it was the first to produce animated ads made specifically for the new medium. They hired Douglas Leigh to produce a series of seven animated ads that starred an animated character, the Botany Lamb. In each spot, the lamb first promoted the company s line of wool ties and then looked into a telescope to predict the next day s weather. The forecast appeared in white letters over the black lens of the telescope: different endings were made that said fair, warmer, windy, cooler, and so on.

Leigh, who owned a company that created most of the spectacular signs in the Times Square area, says he was chosen to do the ads because of his work with animated sign displays. Noran Kersta, of NBC-TV, had seen Leigh s signs in Times Square and thought that--if he could do those amazing ads--he could probably do something exciting for TV, so he hired him for the job. Leigh says that Otto Messmer, his head animator, directed the Botany spots. Animator Saul Taffet recalls these ads as the ones everybody pointed to as the trail blazer. They probably aired from September 1941 until the end of 1948, when they were replaced by a new series produced by Fletcher Smith Studios.

By the time the Botany ads first aired, WWII was already on the horizon. Television set production had stopped as aluminum, a material needed to build sets, was rationed and it seemed unlikely that TV would grow as a business during the coming war. Leigh says he could have continued working in television but didn t; instead, he decided to stay with his highly successful career in outdoor advertising.

World War II did not, however, put an end to TV. Sporting events, news, safety information and other programming was scheduled to some extent throughout the war. In September 1944, six out of the nine stations on the air were commercial and there were thirty-three sponsors. Most of the low budget ads were presented live, but at least one sponsor did an entire live action ad on film.

In January 1946, Television Magazine reported that animation had been used in ads for three products. Messmer s work for Botany comprised the most extensive use of animation. Rinso had a short animated product ID on film that was used with its live ads (the film portion showed a clothesline that had letters spelling the product's name flapping in the breeze). Super Suds was using animated hand action on some of their still cartoons. Considering how closely the magazine watched the industry, it is unlikely that any other animation had been made for TV ads at that time.


Those first days of commercial TV produced a situation of crisis in the advertising and publishing world. The big clients were pulling their money out of magazines and newspapers and putting it into TV. The agencies (and everyone else for that matter) were completely in the dark as to what the new medium was. The only people who had any notion of what to do with it were those who had been somehow involved previously with the movies, particularly informational, educational, propaganda, advertising films for theaters, or animation. The ad agencies were desperately scrambling to cope with completely new problems. For many famous and talented artists and writers the switch from print to TV was tragic. Almost overnight the centuries old printing press popular culture was swept away by this upstart electronic gargantuan infant.

After the war--when there were more televisions, more viewers, more advertisers and more stations--the television business began to take off. Because of war rationing, set production had stopped in 1941. It did not begin again until the middle of 1946 but, by the end of that year, 8000 sets were in service. Ten years later, 38 million sets had been sold in the United States. The number of advertisers also rose dramatically. In March 1947, there were 42 sponsors. The number went over 1000 in March 1949, and there were over 7500 estimated in May 1954. The number of stations increased from 9 at the end of 1944 to 98 at the end of 1949.

When the television industry first began to grow, almost all ads were presented live. It took time to convince advertisers to spend money on animation. Zack Swartz--a former Disney animator, co-founder of UPA and owner of co-owner of Zac-David studio--notes that at first clients were horrified at the cost of animation, but when they saw how effective it could be, they ceased to complain and more and more full animation budgets were allocated. Jack Zander, who headed the animation department at Transfilm, explains:

The art form turned out to be a natural for the tube. First it grabbed the viewer s attention just by the looks. At that time most of the commercials were talking heads or other examples of stand up deliveries. Pretty boring. Along comes the funny pictures and immediately the eye is drawn to the screen. Can t beat that. At that stage of the business all you had to do was make some drawings move. Our audience was there waiting for the message.

By 1949, research polls were backing up Schwartz s and Zander s observations about the effectiveness of animation. In October of that year, Television Magazine noted that four of the six best-liked ads on television were animated. A few months later, the magazine mentioned that an animated Tide ad produced and directed by Ben Harrison was rated number one in brands purchased for the first time as a result of a TV commercial.

One of the ironies of the early television ad business is that--when ad agencies decided to incorporate animation into their campaigns--they did not hire companies that had made theatrical ads but instead turned to those that had made theatrical cartoons. Lee Blair suggests that ad agencies were happy hiring companies whose talent had worked on theatrical cartoons and that they may have even felt insecure working with producers who did not have those credentials. Bill Hurtz seems to agree with that point, saying UPA could not get into the animated TV ad business until they got a contract from Columbia in 1948 to do theatrical cartoons. He says the contract gave them the industry awareness needed for them to break into the TV ad business.


The concensus among those interviewed is that four new studios dominated the TV animated ad business at the end of the 1940s: Fletcher Smith, Tempo, Transfilm and Shamus Culhane Productions. All had animation directors who had worked for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Disney, and/or Fleischer during the 1930s.

Fletcher Smith Studios In 1946, Bert Hecht was hired to sell and produce live action and animated ads, in an effort to expand the studio s filmstrip business into advertising films. Soon after, the company hired animators Bill Sturm and Orestes Calpini, both of whom had worked for Fleischer in the 1930s. The company s first animation project came at the end of 1946 or early in 1947. It was a live-action ad for Roosevelt Raceway that included a talking horse. To make the horse talk, black and white photos were made of the needed frames and then animated mouths were added over them. Hecht believes this minute ad was budgeted at around $4,000.

Their next animation project was a fully animated minute ad for Quality Bakers. It starred Miss Sunbeam, promoting Sunbeam bread. The Sunbeam ad was followed by ads for Mott s Apple Juice, Kools, Pickwick Ale, Botany Ties and other products. Jim Logan, who worked as an assistant at the studio during the years 1948-49 , says the Mott s singing apples were so popular with the public that the ad ran well into the 1950s. He credits George Cannata, another former Fleischer employee, as the animator of the apples.

Tempo Another studio that would eventually become successful in TV was Zac-David, later called Tempo. It was founded by David Hilberman and Zack Schwartz, former Disney artists who sold their two-thirds interest in UPA (to partner Steve Bousustow) and moved to New York in 1946. Their initial plan was to produce educational films for 16mm release, based on their experience at UPA producing Hell Bent for Election and The Brotherhood of Man for the United Auto Workers. The partners of Zac-David quickly found out that the supposed market for 16mm educational films was limited; Hilberman explains, we were wrong. TV saved our economic necks.

Hilberman says that Jack Zander helped get them started in TV by giving Tempo part of his company's Camel account. Zander explains that the job was so large no shop in town was big enough to handle all the ads. [Transfilm] did some, Tempo did some. In the winter of 1947-48, Camel was sponsoring the nightly news on NBC and had ordered enough live-action and animated ads so it would take five weeks before one repeated. At that time, this was an unheard of amount of work. One job led to another; after Camels, they did some experiments in animated weather reports for Sanka and other projects (eventually, their accounts included Standard Brands, Plymouth, National Dairy Association, Tide, and Clark Gum). The studio grew to a staff of five artists and, according to Hilberman, then Bill Pomerance, former business agent of the Cartoonists Guild in LA, joined us as business manager, and we were off to the races as Tempo Productions. Bill Tytla came in as director, I handled design and supervised story and production. We were on top with all 'Blue Ribbon' accounts. Zac-David changed its name to Tempo when Schwartz left the company in 1948 or 1949.

Transfilm Inc. Jack Zander--who had worked for MGM, Terrytoons, Van Buren and other studios during the 1930s--started Transfilm's animation department after he made the switch to television advertising. He had made his first TV ad early in 1947, while he was working for Tom Willard at Willard Pictures. The ad, for Chiclets Gum, was a minute long and cost about $3,500. Zander left the company for Transfilm, which was already doing live action ads on film, because Willard was mainly interested in industrial films and did not go after more television work. While at Transfilm, Zander became head of the animation department and was kept busy doing ads for Camels, Shell Oil, Gulf Oil and other sponsors. He recalls doing a series of five Shell ads during an actor's strike and remembers we made them without any voice track, using sound effects only. [They were] very good. In 1954, Zander left Transfilm with coworker Joe Dunford. Together they formed Pelican Films (a company that at one point had offices in New York, Chicago, Toronto and London) and continued making mostly television commercials.

Shamus Culhane Productions. Culhane s company was located in Los Angeles and was originally called Television Arts Enterprises. He had worked for Disney, Fleischer and others during the 1930s and entered television production in 1947 with an ad for Ajax, starring the Ajax Elves. The ad featured animation of Disney quality and the budget was an unheard of $5,000. Its credits included animators Grim Natwick, Art Babbit and Art Heineman, and voice artists June Foray, Joe Silver and Hans Conried. Culhane says his first Ajax ad was a hit and brought in about $160,000 worth of work before he decided TV in Hollywood was stillborn and moved to New York. There, in August 1948, he opened Shamus Culhane Productions and his first accounts included Tetly Tea, Halo Shampoo, Rinso and more work for Ajax.

Other studios. Not everyone who opened animation studios in the New York area after the war went directly into the TV commercial business. At Film Graphics, Lee Blair (a former Disney animator) and his partner, Bernie Ruben, made informational films for the government and others. Their first production was The ABCs of the Automotive Engine, made in 1946 for General Motors. It was not until late 1948 that they produced their first ad, when a company called Telspot (which later became Columbia Screen Gems) came to them with work for BVD. In the first twenty second spot, BVD letters jumped down into view, then danced and sung praise to BVD. The second spot was essentially the same, except the three human-like BVD letters entered on a specially built bike. Lee s brother, Preston, helped animate the ads. After that experience, Film Graphics went on to become a major producer of animated and live-action commercials.

And, of course, not all of the animation studios found instant success in television after doing an ad. Chad Grothkopf explains I worked all by myself during the 1940s on TV ads and comic books. His small company was called Chad Associates (he never used his last name). Chad s first work was a tag for an ESSO gas ad in 1947. He used cutouts and had a car traveling over musical notes. In 1948, he did a minute of full animation for North Cool Clothing. Still, he says he did not have enough work to open a full animation studio until 1949 or 1950, when he began doing station IDs sponsored by Kools Cigarettes. Kools ran them at 8 p.m. on all three networks across the nation; they showed a penguin who said, ironically, got a cough, smoke Kools.


Several producers who worked in the late 1940s look back on the period with fondness because the ad agencies gave them a great deal of creative control. David Hilberman remembers in those early years, some agencies--BBD&O (Batton, Barton, Durstine and Osborn), for example--were ready to grant Tempo freedom to try out ideas. He considered Tempo s work in the late 1940s to be highly experimental, recalling an ad for Shaffer Beer that used a three-dimensional beer bottle with cel animated figures moving behind it. Hilberman said that, from 1947 to 1950, they did the storyboards at Tempo and then showed them to the ad agency, but that the agencies began doing the boards in 1950 or 1951.

Shamus Culhane says the early years, 1948-50, were a time when doing TV spots was really fun. The agencies often would give us just one line of copy, and we would write a story featuring that line and the product. The result was a spate of professional ideas for stories. They were amusing, but also sold the product. He remembers getting an ad for Almond Joy that only had to include two words: indescribably delicious. Culhane says, I loved it, from that we were supposed to make a spot. But, like Hilberman, Culhane notes that the trend in the 50s was for the agencies to try to write their own scripts and oversee storyboards. The originality and freedom of thought that studio writers had was soon gone and we entered a period of stifled talent. I grew to hate the business.

Almost everybody interviewed had negative comments about the ad agencies taking control of the scripts and storyboards. Studio people saw the agency people as untrained hacks who took control because they controlled the money. The process of obtaining work also changed during this period. In the 1940s, jobs were often secured on the strength of the company s sample reel and the relationship the studio salesman had with agencies. By 1949 or 1950, the competitive bid system was established with several studios bidding against each other for the same job.

Some of the people interviewed seem much happier now that they have left the industry. Shamus Culhane, for example, enjoys his new occupation as a writer and laments that much of what he worked on in his sixty years in the business is long forgotten crap. Preston Blair says of his career in advertising: I really felt like a race horse tied to a milk wagon. I wasn t exercising my full potential at all. He is much happier now in his work developing a patent for an interactive video system. Still, most looked back on their careers with happier memories. More typical is Lee Blair who says animation has been good to me.

The 1950s were to be a rich period for animated TV commercials production, despite the studios loss of creative control over the ads. The public and press loved the new animated stars: UPA s Bert and Harry Piel (who promoted Piel s Beer), Five Star s Speedy Alka Seltzer, Swift-Chaplin s Hamms Beer Bear, Shamus Culhane s sexy Muriel Cigar lady (who sounded like Mae West when she said Why don t you pick me up and smoke me sometime? ), and John Hubley s Markie Maypo (who promoted Maypo, a breakfast treat). When it came to industry accolades, it seems the largest number went to work with a contemporary look produced by such studios as UPA and Storyboard (owned by John and Faith Hubley). There was enormous growth in the industry, and several of the studios that produced animated commercials grew from a staff of 4 or 5 to 125 or 150 (such was the case at Tempo). By the late 1950s, however, there were other changes. A host of new, small studios had appeared on the scene and increased competition as they made cheaper (and seemingly inferior) productions. Under this pressure, large studios were either forced out of business or again returned to small staffs.