Marking 50 Years Of Memorable TV: The Commercials

ADMIT it now, you remember -- as least as clearly as you do most sitcom characters -- that little mustached man from Dunkin' Donuts who had to climb out of bed in the wee hours to make doughnuts.

No doubt you also recall that Wendy's ''Where's the beef?'' ad and the Army's ''Be all you can be.''

If the TV medium has reason to celebrate anything lately, it's commercials like these. And industry groups have been doing just that: marking the 50th anniversary of those ineluctable ads whose history is as memorable -- for better or worse -- as that of TV programming itself.

Earlier this year, industry groups joined to hold events in New York and Chicago -- another is planned for June in Los Angeles -- to congratulate the makers of commercials, with appearances by the creators of ads like ''Time to make the doughnuts.''

Beyond accepting applause for their creativity, producers of commercials can applaud economic results. Broadcast revenues for 1994 were up -- way up -- from 1993, says the Television Bureau of Advertising. TV ads totaled (are you ready?) more than $27 billion. That includes the networks, whose troubles tend to be overplayed whenever the press focuses a starry eye on the multi-channeled future. Of network advertising, automobiles -- the most-advertised category -- account for more than $1.6 billion, with food-related products second at more than $1.4 billion.

That buys a lot of , sitcoms, news, and soaps. It also explains why viewers are subjected to so many ads, including offensive, intrusive ones.

But what's being honored is not so much the dollars as the talent. More production energy per minute goes into many commercials than into most programs. Yet too often the result is a joyless brilliance that catches the eye and the mind in a way you can't easily shake, just as a cheap tune sometimes does.

But the best commercials catch the heart as well as the head, linking you to life at large in a way that makes you remember them decades later.

Take the 1961 Kodak ad, which is expected to be screened at the June event in L.A. It was a capsule chronicle of a girl's growing up, from babyhood up until she had a child herself. The tale was told through still photos, taken by her father, of the girl against a large door. In the background you heard a song called ''Turn Around'' that still rings in some people's ears.

Other commercials stick in the mind simply because they do their job so well. How many brief scenes from TV shows do veteran viewers recall from the early 1960s? Yet many vividly remember the 1963 commercial of a man walking out of his house, through deep snow, to a Volkswagen. A voiceover asked, ''Did you ever wonder how the guy who drives the snowplow gets there?''

And there was the one for Memorex recording tapes some years ago that showed a little boy on a dock fooling around with a tape recorder while some soldiers were being drilled nearby. The sergeant's commands brought the soldiers near the dock's edge, then the sergeant ordered a quick about-face. The kid had taped the about-face command and -- still just fooling around -- played it back. The soldiers heard the tape, wheeled around obediently, and marched smartly off the dock into the water: The message -- delivered with potent visual and verbal economy -- was that the soldiers couldn't tell the difference between the sergeant's real voice and the recording.

Good ads have a place in TV that goes beyond money. They tie the medium to the community and the world, just as good ads give newspapers a related feeling. Commercials certainly need to be kept in check -- especially during children's viewing time. There's a rampant taste problem with some. But commercial creators do deserve a slap on the back once in a long while.

The best commercials catch the heart as well as the head. They go beyond the product itself and link you to life at large, so that you remember them years later.

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