History of advertising: No 181: Kraft Television Theatre

Although it might not have seemed so when it was first broadcast to a tiny audience in New York on 7 May 1947, Kraft Television Theatre proved a milestone in the eventual mastery of the TV medium by major food advertisers.

History of advertising: No 181: Kraft Television Theatre

Not only did it bring live drama and new talent to TV for the first time but it was the first initiative of its kind to be produced by an agency, J Walter Thompson, which selected the performers via its casting department.

The drama was accompanied by ads featuring recipes using Kraft products. Kraft’s experiment with TV advertising was designed to blend with the company’s overall marketing strategy, which focused on the concept of "gracious living" and middle-class, suburban family values. This was reflected in the series’ output of gently paced intimate dramas.

As one Kraft marketer put it, the show was to be a "respectful guest in America’s living rooms".

To test the effectiveness of the new medium and to find out if it could give it a competitive edge in the advertising of food products, Kraft chose to promote MacLaren’s cheese, a premium product that had previously received little advertising support.

The result was astonishing, with JWT’s sales department reporting that the product, advertised nowhere else but on TV, was flying off the shelves. Kraft’s strategy of acting as a guest in viewers’ homes manifested itself in the commercials, also screened live.

Developed in the Kraft kitchens in Chicago, the spots were recipe-based and involved harried home economists heating, slicing and stirring just out of camera range. With a voiceover by Ed Herlihy, who was synonymous with Kraft for more than 40 years, the ads showed only the hands of the demonstrator.

Kraft reckoned the approach would make it easier for women to imagine preparing the recipes in their own kitchens.

Things you need to know

  • Actors who appeared on the show included James Dean, Jack Lemmon, Grace Kelly and Paul Newman. Among the directors were Sidney Lumet and George Roy Hill. Patterns, a Kraft Television Theatre production by Rod Serling, won an Emmy in 1955.
  • The show never topped the ratings but Kraft always maintained it was more interested in the number of recipe requests it got.
  • In 1958, after more than 600 shows, Kraft sold the rights to David Susskind’s Talent Associates, which revamped it as Kraft Mystery Theatre.

Picture credit: NBC

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