A still image from "In My Merry Oldsmobile" (1931)
Triggered by the crash of the U.S. Stock Market in 1929, the Great Depression -- the longest and deepest downturn in the U.S. economy -- dealt a devastating blow to the emerging, and until then rapidly growing, film industry. By the early 1930s Paramount Pictures, the distributor for Fleischer Studios films, was feeling the pinch of dwindling box office receipts and looking for new, creative ways to finance the production of new films, including the popular animated films created by Fleischer Studios.
Paramount's solution? They offered advertisers the opportunity to finance an entertaining short subject film that would prominently and positively feature their product. In the days before television, the prospect of reaching audiences throughout Paramount's chain of theaters offered advertisers broad, national reach, with a single short film reaching three or four million people.
Central to Paramount's plan was the "soft-sell." The goal was to create films that could be sold to the public as entertainment that seamlessly, but effectively, incorporated an advertiser's product and messaging.
From the very beginning, there were skeptics. Film pioneer Cal Laemmle warned against ‘concealed advertising,’ saying it was “a serious mistake to figure that because the radio broadcasts contain advertising it is all right for movies to do it.” But there were plenty of others who argued the reverse: that film audiences would happily accept promotional messages, as long as the films were entertaining. As it turns out... this wasn't quite the case.
It was 1930 when Fleischer Studios created, its first advertising film, A Jolt for General Germ, a promotion for the disinfectant Lysol. In his book Product Placement in Hollywood Films, Kerry Segraves reports that the heads of Lysol were delighted with the “cartoon-style film because it was considered the most effective and entertaining method of presenting an otherwise unpleasant subject - the killing of disease germs” and that, “its advertising purpose has been completely subordinated to the requirements for a strictly entertaining feature.”
Lysol enhanced the film's message by forwarding window displays and other advertising materials to drug stores around the country to coincide with the showing of the film. Along with the window display, drug stores would receive a letter excitedly proclaiming that: “The film is of the ever-popular, All-Talkie, All-Musical, Animated-Cartoon type and the audience, your customers, will see it when they are in their most receptive mood. They are being entertained and are impressionable!”
A Very Special Feature: HURRY DOCTOR!
Long considered a "lost" film, this otherwise remarkable print is missing the opening title and credits.
Thanks to animation historian Jerry Beck and animation historian/animator Mark Kausler, we are able to share this rare and special copy of Hurry Doctor, which Fleischer Studios created as a promotion for the Texaco Company.
Although In My Merry Oldsmobile has been in circulation for some time, this is the only copy we've seen of any of the other advertising films the Fleischers made during this period.
Find more great animation history, images and films on Jerry Beck's blog: Cartoon Research.
The Fleischers went on to make several more advertising shorts for Paramount distribution, including Suited to a T, for The India Tea Co., and three films for Texaco, Hurry Doctor (above), Texas in 1999, and Step On It. But it didn't take long for audiences to figure out that they were basically paying to see ads. As Fleischer animator Jimmy (Shamus) Culhane recounts in his book Talking Animals and Other People:
In 1931 the motion picture audiences throughout the country began to become restive as an increasing number of programs contained advertising shorts..... There was some attempt at including entertainment factors in the scripts, but in general they were a bore, and audiences began to resent the fact that advertising messages were foisted on them when they had paid money to be entertained.
So when the Fleischers were contracted to create a promotional film for the Oldsmobile company, they were determined to raise the bar. With the help of the Fleischers' patented bouncing ball, they would create a thoroughly entertaining film incorporating a level of product promotion that audiences would find more acceptable. As Culhane recalls:
Rudy Zamora and I wrote a script for a Screen Song that features the old popular song, “In My Merry Oldsmobile.” It was no better, and certainly no worse than the usual bouncing-ball film, with a modicum of advertising.
Interestingly, it was their success that proved to be the last straw with audiences. As Culhane recounts it:
When it was released, all hell broke loose. It seems that this was the psychological moment for a wave of protest against advertising films, and the resentment focused on this picture. These bouncing ball cartoons were very popular throughout the country. I think that the audience’s reaction was caused by the fact that here was one of their favorite bits of entertainment being subverted to advertising.
Audiences across the nation rose in angry protest against the film, which was pulled from circulation. The event was even listed in the 1932 Film Daily Yearbook under the “Ten Leading Events of Motion Pictures During The Year 1931.” It was Event #4:
Due to audience antipathy toward screen advertising, Paramount discontinues the production and distribution of sponsored shorts, with other major companies following suit.
While the practice of product placement in film has long since become standard, the brief era of the animated 'commercial short' was over almost as quickly as it began.
Released: March 1, 1931. While it was created to promote Olds Motor Works (later known as Oldsmobile), it’s hard to imagine the film helped them sell cars! Viewing it through the lens of today’s standards, the woman in the film is attacked and abused by an evil intruder, and sometimes seems to enjoy it! It's interesting to note that, though the film is made in 1931, the Oldsmobile depicted in the film is an early model car- from 1904. The title song, written in 1905, was used by Oldsmobile as a marketing jingle for many years. Wikipedia calls the chorus, ‘one of the most enduring automobile-oriented songs.”