The Ultimate Guide to TV Ads

Learn about the history of TV ads and how to create a commercial campaign that engages and converts your audience

Written by: Allie Decker


Plan and launch an effective and profitable advertising campaign with this guide and set of templates.

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Just do it.

Think different.

Breakfast of champions.

Where’s the beef?

Got milk?

Taste the rainbow.

The six phrases above feature no more than three words. But I’d bet you could tell me which brand each phrase belongs to.

The above slogans aren’t only popular quotes from advertisements, they’re also defining phrases for brands. They inspire case studies, jokes, and Halloween costumes. They’re pillars of our advertising society … and they all came from TV.

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Author Ray Bradbury once said, "The average TV commercial of 60 seconds has 120 half-second clips in it or one-third of a second. We bombard people with sensation. That substitutes for thinking."

It doesn’t take long for consumers to feel, for them to sense something. That’s why these slogans — and many others — aren’t more than a few words.

And that’s why TV commercials, despite their evolution over the last 60 years, are still one of the most effective — albeit most fleeting — marketing strategies.

The following guide will acquaint you with the TV advertising industry and equip you with the tools needed to run your own TV ad. Keep reading to learn more, or use the chapter links below to jump ahead.

History of TV Advertising

TV advertising has changed drastically since 1941 when the first commercial for Bulova Watch Company aired. The ten-second ad cost less than $10 to create and was seen by 4,000 people on WNBT, a local channel in New York. It was aired during a baseball game — the Brooklyn Dodgers vs. the Philadelphia Phillies.

Since then, TV ads have seen drastic changes, both in content and culture. Here’s a brief overview of the history of TV ads.

TV Ads in the 1950s: Sponsored Programs

TV took a break during WWII. But after the war, over a third of US households owned a TV. Companies took advantage of the boost in viewership with sponsored programs, which is when a brand pays for shows to exclusively showcase their products or air their commercials.

Wonder Bread and Cheerios were presented during shows like Howdy Doody and The Lone Ranger. Some companies were even part of program names, like The Colgate Comedy Hour and Texaco Star Theater.

TV Ads in the 1960s: Rules and Regulations

Advertising was everywhere, but it was hardly regulated. Sponsored programs put a lot of creative power in the hands of brands, and programs and networks were resigned to follow suit.

It wasn’t until NBC’s Sylvester “Pat” Weaver introduced what was known as the “Magazine Concept” for TV commercials. Advertisers could purchase time blocks (around one to two minutes) during which their advertisement would air, and multiple brands could advertise during one program … much like in a magazine. In turn, programs and networks gained back creative control, and TV advertising morphed into how we know it today.

This change diversified advertisements and forced brands to become more creative in order to stand out. TV ads became more entertaining, viewers looked forward to commercial breaks, and networks had no problem selling ad space. In 1961, the Committee of Advertising Practice was formed.

The 60s also saw a rise in jingles, a short slogan sung during an ad. Brands like Slinky, Rice-a-Roni, and Dr. Pepper advertised with short, memorable songs.

TV Ads in the 1970s: Defining Audiences

TV advertising in the 1970s was all about recognizing, experimenting with, and regulating audiences. Some brands were bold, such as Winston Cigarettes using the G-rated Flintstones characters to promote their products. Other brands were subtle, like when Gilbey’s Gin hid the word “sex” in its ads. (The latter was a print campaign, but plenty other brands applied this to TV.)

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) outlawed subliminal messaging in 1974 as deceptive advertising. As for the bolder brands, they soon learned that targeting their messages to the right audience was the better, more profitable practice. Tootsie Roll used animated characters like Mr. Owl to advertise to kids. Folgers featured a married, suburban couple to promote their coffee. Bounty targeted restaurateurs and food lovers with their microwave-specific towels.

In turn, companies that advertised to the right audiences and on the right channels had a stronger, more memorable message. 

TV Ads in the 1980s and 1990s: Super Bowl and Storytelling

The 1980s introduced one of the biggest annual phenomena in TV advertising: the Super Bowl. Because so many people tune in for the game, the four-hour window has become one of the most exciting (and expensive) times for commercials. In 2016, advertisers had to pay $5 million for a 30-second spot during Super Bowl 50.

In 1979, Coca-Cola aired one of the most memorable Super Bowl ads to date. Hey Kid, Catch! featured Mean Joe Greene, a defensive lineman for the Pittsburgh Steelers, taking a Coke from a boy and tossing him his jersey in exchange.

It was impactful for a couple reasons: one, it was aired soon after the Civil Rights Movement, and featuring Greene was a major step towards equality and diversity in advertising; two, it didn’t promise anything special. It was simply an injured ballplayer downing a tasty drink that improved his mood. That was enough for Coca-Cola, though, as the ad improved the company’s brand awareness and partnership with the Steelers.

The 80s and 90s were also all about storytelling in advertisements. Apple’s “1984” TV ad introducing their new Macintosh remains one of the most popular TV ads and introduced the slogan “Think Different,” which the brand still uses to this day.

Lots of other companies followed this storytelling model, too. Eggo Waffles featured a little boy with a big invention, Super Soaker empowered two teens to crash a pool party, and McDonald’s told the tale of a little girl at her piano recital.

The 90s also saw the introduction of popular actors and celebrities as spokespeople in TV ads, such as Brad Pitt in a Levi Jeans ad. This paved the way for brand endorsements.

In 1999, TiVO came on the scene and changed TV advertising forever.

TV Ads in the 2000s: TiVO

With the introduction of TiVO and DVRs, consumers became accustomed to skipping over TV ads. Companies and brands fought to create more creative advertisements to counteract this, but that didn’t always help.

Product placement was also revived. Friends mentioned Pottery Barn and Oreo, Sex and the City featured Apple’s MacBook, and The Office highlights Staples as Dunder-Mifflin’s biggest competitor.

Today, streaming TV is advertising’s biggest competitor. We’ll talk more about TV ads in 2018 below.

Pros and Cons of TV Ads

Like any marketing method, there are benefits and drawbacks to TV ads. You should ultimately base your decision on your own resources and advertising goals, but these factors are important to consider, too.

Pros of TV Ads

  • TV ads provide a multi-sensory ad experience. Viewers hear, see, and read your advertisement, meaning they digest the information (and the feelings it provokes) in many different ways.
  • TV ads have a wide reach. TV as a medium also has deep penetration. These terms basically mean lots of people see TV ads … but we explain reach and penetration in the following section.
  • TV ads are impactful. They reach your audience when they’re attentive and focused.
  • TV ads allow your brand to establish a brand identity and expand your brand awareness. They give you a chance to be creative and attach a personality to your company or product.

Cons of TV Ads

  • TV ads are expensive, more expensive than any other marketing medium. Networks charge for airtime, and hiring writers, actors, producers, and editors can add up, too.
  • TV ads are hard to change. Unlike display ads, social media posts, or even print ads, you can’t hop in and change a TV ad without shooting a new ad or at least contacting the network. If you do choose to change anything, it’ll cost you more money.
  • TV ads are avoidable. Although your audience is attentive and focused while watching TV, they might choose to skip over or ignore the commercials. Also, with technology like DVR and streaming on Netflix and Hulu, TV ads can be entirely eliminated if a viewer so chooses.
  • TV ads can’t be targeted like other marketing channels. You can, however, choose to run your ad on channels and during day-parts that reach your audience. If you sell products for stay-at-home moms, you might run your ad during the day; if you’re advertising a service for working parents, you might run it during nighttime programs.

TV Advertising Terms

Like any niche industry, TV advertising has its own slew of terms, some of which you’re probably unfamiliar. Below you’ll find some common terms used in TV advertising and campaigns.


Reach is the number of individual people who watch a program during a specific time period.


Penetration is the number of households who own a TV or subscribe to cable.


Frequency is the number of TV ads placed within a time period that viewers will see.


Share is the percentage of households or people who are viewing a TV ad at a specific time.

Coverage Map

A coverage map (or just coverage) represents the percentage of households or people receiving a particular broadcast signal within a geographic area.


Impressions represent the number of households or people who will potentially see a TV ad.


Rating is a percentage of total households who own TVs who are tuned into a program at a specific time. One percent of the population within a coverage area is equal to one point.


A day-part is a set time period within which TV stations sell and segment their programs and ads. Most stations sell their time slots based on rating and day-part. The default day-parts (in EST) are:

  • Early Morning — 5:00 to 9:00 am
  • Daytime — 9:00 am to 3:00 pm
  • Early Fringe — 3:00 to 5:00 pm
  • Early News — 5:00 to 7:00 pm
  • Prime Access — 7:00 to 8:00 pm
  • Prime — 8:00 to 11:00 pm (Mon thru Sat) and 7:00 to 11:00 pm (Sunday)
  • Late News — 11:00 to 11:30 pm
  • Late Fringe — 11:30 to 2:00 am
  • Overnight — 2:00 to 5:00 am


Sweeps refers to a time period (in February, May, July, and November) during which rating surveys are sent to local marketing to measure viewership.

TV sweeps determine station ratings, which is why stations usually run their best programming during the first few weeks of each sweeps quarter.

Gross Rating Points (GRP)

Gross Rating Points represent the measurement of impressions as related to the number of targeted people in a campaign, without regard to repeated impressions. The formula is GRP = Rating x Frequency.

For example, if a TV program has a rating of eight and an ad was run during four episodes, the ad campaign would have a GRP of 8 x 4 = 32.

Run-Of-Schedule (ROS)

A run-of-schedule campaign is when advertisers and agencies will pay for ads to run during any day-part and any show. Most ROS campaigns run overnight as these slots are rarely “sold out.”

Cost Per Thousand (CPM)

The cost per thousand is the cost to reach 1,000 people with a TV ad. CPM is a commonly-used measure of ad efficiency.

Everything You Need to Know About TV Ads

Placing an advertisement on TV might not be for every business. It’s certainly a costly commitment that requires a variety of resources. But if you’re interested in how to run a TV ad for your company, we’ve covered the basics in this section.

Positioning Your TV Ad

The first step to creating and running a TV ad or ad campaign is positioning. Here are a few questions to ask.

  • Who is my target audience?
  • What TV channels do they watch and when?
  • What TV shows on those channels do they watch?

Consider these questions before you move forward in the process. These answers will guide other decisions you might make for your TV ad.

Paying for a TV Ad

Next, let’s talk about money. TV ads are expensive — we all know that.

But there isn’t one set cost for TV ads. Many factors play into the price, including channel, day-part, length of the TV ad, and how much it costs to produce the ad.

The price also changes based on what kind of network on which you want to advertise.

Advertising on Local TV

Local networks are specific to your location. They typically air on low-numbered channels (like 3 or 10) and feature local news, events, and more. Local brick-and-mortar businesses who target audiences in a specific geographic area will find it most cost-effective to advertise on local networks.

The cost of a local TV spot varies but is typically between $200 and $1500 per 30-second ad.

Broadcast / Cable TV Ad

Broadcast and cable TV aren’t synonymous. Broadcast television includes channels like ABC, NBC, CBS, and FOX (considered Primary Networks), and typically have local affiliates in each city. (Chicago’s ABC affiliate is WLS.)

Cable television includes channels like The CW, USA, Discovery Channel, ESPN, and HGTV. Both networks require consumers to pay to access.

Cable TV spots are tricky. Not everyone pays for cable (fewer now with TV streaming), but cable channels are more niched than others. This means that your audience will be targeted, albeit smaller than on other channels.

The cost of cable TV ads vary greatly depending on the popularity of programs and day-part. AMC’s The Walking Dead averaged $400,000 per 30-second spot … but that’s probably because it was the most expensive program on cable TV. The season five premiere drew over 17 million viewers.

Broadcast TV spot can either be extremely expensive or pretty reasonable, depending on the program or event. For example, the cost of a 30-second spot during The Big Bang Theory on CBS in 2015 was $344,827. On the other hand, companies paid $1.55 million for a 30-second spot during the 2015 NCAA Men's Division I Basketball Championship Tournament … also on CBS.

Estimating the Cost of Your TV Ad

Like I said above, TV ad costs vary. But with a little math and an understanding of the terms we defined above, you can roughly estimate what your ad might cost.

  1. Figure out how many people watch the program during which your ad might air. You can ask the network for Nielsen data to help with your research. Here are the broadcast TV networks in your area.
  2. Estimate the CPM of your intended program. The network probably won’t supplement this information, but you can estimate it by dividing the cost of one TV ad by the total viewership — data they should provide. As for the 2018/2019 season, the average CPM for national broadcast networks is $31.97.
  3. Determine how many spots you’d like to run during your campaign.

Let’s say you wanted to run 12 spots during a six-week window on your local ABC affiliate during the evening news segment (the Prime Access day-part). The segment is watched by 45,000 people on average, and the CPM is $18.00. Here’s how you’d estimate the price of the ad campaign.

Estimated TV Ad Cost = (# of spots) (# of viewers in thousands) (CPM) = (12) x (45) x (18) = $9,720

Notice that this doesn’t include the cost of creating the ad itself. We’ll dive into this next.

Creating a TV Ad

Producing a competitive, creative TV spot isn’t an easy feat. But what makes it possible is a thorough planning process (like with any advertising or marketing campaign).

The following section is full of questions that’ll help you brainstorm and plan out your TV ad. Don’t skip ahead as previous questions might inspire other answers.

1. What might stand in the way of your TV ad?

By this question we mean: Why would your ad not be successful? Just because TV advertising isn’t the promotional powerhouse it once was doesn't mean it can’t still be effective.

As a marketer, you just have to be aware of and plan around the initial roadblocks.

The first, most obvious roadblock is DVR, TiVO, and other TV technologies. While you can’t control how people choose to watch TV, you can prepare yourself — and your budget — to not reach the viewership numbers for which you’d hoped. Instead of projecting a specific number, try shooting for a goal range.

Secondly, people get distracted. We’re humans. We have the attention span of a goldfish … which is kind of sad if you think about it. (Op, already forgotten!) Anyway, we get distracted easily, which means you as a marketer need to come up with funnier, more creative ways to keep viewers attentive. Do so, and we might watch through the commercial breaks.

Lastly, advertising burnout is a real thing. Consumers are bombarded with thousands of advertisements throughout their day … how can you make your TV spot not like the others? Try borrowing from those 80s and 90s ad producers and tell a story in your ad. Better yet, focus on features and benefits, not tacky sales tactics.

Don’t let these roadblocks dissuade you. TV spots can still be effective; we’re just equipping you to build the most effective TV ad strategy possible.

2. How long do you have for your TV ad?

At this point, you should know which networks and programs during which your TV ad will air. But how long is the commercial you’re paying for? How long do you have to grab attention and share your call-to-action? Keep this length in mind as you plan your spot.

Don’t be tempted to go over time, even just by a few seconds. It’s not worth it — your ad will be cut and your brand will look unprofessional.

3. What’s the big idea or purpose of your TV ad?

When planning your spot, start small: What’s the big idea of your TV ad? TV ads give you a handful of seconds to convince, inform, entertain, impact, or humor your audience. Jot down the purpose of your ad, or at least what you’d like your audience to take away.

Advertising your new product? Announcing a new location? Introducing a brand partnership? Simply trying to get your name out there? Whatever it is, jot it down. Next, consider how you want your big idea to make your audience feel. The emotion your TV ad provokes will be just as (if not more) memorable than the message it sends.

Focusing on your ad’s big idea and emotional experience will make it impactful for your audience. TV advertising is an expensive, competitive field. You can’t afford (literally) not to stand out.

Every idea needs something that’ll make it pop! How are you going to do that with your spot?

4. What will viewers hear during your TV ad?

TV ads are multi-sensory experiences. That means viewers should understand what your ad is about whether they’re watching it or listening to it from the other room.

Video scriptwriting is much different than any other type of writing. Scripts need to be informative, entertaining and convincing while remaining short and snappy. 

Whether your script is what your characters will say to each other or represents what a narrator might read, commercials give you a limited time frame to get your objective across. Start with your big idea (as defined above) and work from there. Remember the emotional experience you want to convey, and weave that into your writing.

Now, read your script out loud. Role-play with a teammate. Trim any excess content you don’t need. We also recommend writing scripts in Google Docs for easy collaboration with other team members.

Lastly, consider what music you want in your commercial, if any.

5. What will consumers see in your TV ad?

TV ads are so effective because they’re so entertaining … and because the best ones keep viewers around after their program has stopped for a commercial break. Your ad doesn’t have to be synonymous to a TV show, but it should be similarly engaging and visually stimulating.

What or who you include in your spot will depend on your big idea and your target audience. If you’re promoting a new product or business location, you’ll definitely need to show those images or video at some point.

Plenty of great TV ads have been made with gorgeous visuals alone (like Apple’s “Shot on iPhone” commercial), but featuring people can help your viewers relate to your brand. Better yet, if viewers see people similar to them in your spot, they might be able to visualize themselves using your product or service, too. So, if you choose to use people in your TV ad, try using actors that fall into your target audience.

6. How will you create your TV ad?

This question depends on your resources, but hiring a production company should be considered by businesses of all sizes and budgets. If you want to your TV to look professional, you need professionals to create it.

If you simply can’t afford a production company, it’s possible to produce your commercial in-house. Gather scriptwriters, videographers, actors, and designers to get the job done, or consider hiring out a freelancer or specialized contractor to help out.

7. What’s the CTA in your TV ad?

The CTA in your TV ad is similar to your big idea, but it should be much more specific. Is your ad introducing a new product? What do you want your audience to do once they see your ad?

Surely not simply think, “Huh. Neat product.”

No, you want them to take action. Do you want them to buy the product? Visit the product landing page? Share the product on social media? Enter a contest to win the product? Whatever you want your audience to do, include clear directions (both audibly and visibly) for your viewers to follow.

8. How will customers engage with your TV ad? How will you measure this engagement?

The last step in planning your ad is figuring out how your viewers will become visitors, leads, and customers — and how you will track this. Consider how you’ll equip your audience to engage with your TV ad and further research your product, service, or brand.

One way to engage your audience and measure your campaign effect is by providing a vanity URL, which is a simple URL customized for your ad. Short URLs work best because they’re easy to share, use, and remember, especially for offline marketing like TV ads. You can get a vanity URL on sites like Hover and GoDaddy or can just be a page added to your main URL.

For example, if McDonald’s was advertising a new milkshake, they might create a vanity URL for their TV ad campaign like It’s easy to remember for viewers and easy to track for marketers.

You can also create a phone number specific to your TV ad campaign. 1-800 numbers are trackable — that’s why you see so many on TV ads. Software like CallRail can help you do this. This option is less popular now, though, as the internet has become such a popular research and engagement tool.

Keep an eye on marketing and sales metrics during the span of your TV ad campaign. While you can’t pinpoint direct leads or customers from your campaign in this way, you can at least track a general peak (or valley) effect from your TV ads. Keep an eye on other reasons for increased or decreased sales, such as other marketing efforts or specific seasons.

Lastly, set up a filter to track social mentions, press mentions, and general online chatter about your brand or commercial. Consider giving your commercial a specific title and hashtag to make it easier for your audience to talk about it. Don’t forget to upload your TV ad to YouTube and Vimeo to give your viewers a chance to rewatch and share it on social.

TV Advertising Today

In 2014, Netflix’s CPO announced that we were entering an era of “no more commercials.” While the TV advertising landscape has certainly changed, commercials are still alive and well in today’s marketing environment — all these years later.

But he did have a point. Netflix and other streaming services have altered how we view and create commercials. While Netflix itself won’t be adding commercials (except for other Netflix shows), streaming services like Hulu and Sling TV show commercials before and between their programs.

Running ads on Hulu are less expensive than on their co-owner NBC, but they’re still pricier than network TV.

The difference with services like Hulu? Consumers have to watch the commercials … unless they invest in a more expensive streaming plan.

If you’re interested, here’s how to reach the streaming-only audiences with Hulu commercials and Sling TV commercials.

Over to You

A lot of work goes into creating that sensation we’ve called the 30-second TV ad. Is it worth it? If you put in the research, target the right audience, and measure your campaign, it certainly can be. The same goes with marketing on any other media. TV advertising may be new to you, but it’s certainly not out of reach. Take a look at your local networks and dip your toe into the world of TV ads.

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Topics: TV Ads

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