Exhibit / June 26, 2017
Television advertising in the 1950s took a fairly staid and classic form: the advertising agency would spend 30 to 60 seconds presenting a domestic problem that its client’s product promised to alleviate. But the dawn of the 1960s introduced a more aggressive, hard-sell type of direct advertising, where the product’s manufacturer would sell a product directly to the TV viewer through product demonstrations in the manner of a door-to-door salesman. This approach was pioneered by two main companies in the 1960s: Ronco (founded in 1964), and K-tel (founded in 1962 and incorporated in 1968). K-tel, founded by Canadian entrepreneur Philip Kives, took his Atlantic City boardwalk patter to the airwaves to sell products like the Veg-O-Matic (invented by Ronco founder Ron Popeil‘s father Seymour).
These days, K-tel is probably best known not for their kitchen gadgets, but for their music compilations. In 1966, in a bid to expand his product portfolio, Kives decided to sell compilations of original music hits, starting with a record of “20 Country Hits” (Kives grew up on a farm in Saskatchewan, and was acquainted with country music). The music industry in the mid-’60s was still focused on the single, so the opportunity for a consumer to buy a long-playing record that offered a large sample of radio hits was a huge boon in an era before tape recording was widespread. In the 1970s, K-tel’s compilations set the bar for the rapidly-growing direct sales music compilation industry. The ads in the collection above demonstrate the sheer variety of hits and genres that K-tel compiled: rock, pop, disco, country, and nostalgia classics; there were records on offer for everyone.
Unlike later music compilations, where the customer was required to call a 1-800 number, these ads directed you to the brick-and-mortar institutions where you could pick up the album (usually working-class retail establishments like Woolworths or Eckerd Drug). The format of the ads are pretty standard across the board: show the listing of “original hits by original artists” on the compilation, give samples of seven or eight of the songs, and always promise “MANY MORE!” The design of the ads varies from soft-focus psychedelia to comic book-style caricatures and cartoons; live-action sequences feature dream sequences, robot DJs, and disco dance parties. K-tel’s musically ecumenical approach did end up pairing some strange bedfellows (mellow soft-rockers England Dan and John Ford Coley ending up on the same “Pure Power” compilation with Kiss, for example), but it also exposed listeners to types of music they might not ordinarily hear on their favorite rigidly-programmed ’70s radio station.
In the 1980s, facing competition from MTV and home taping, the K-tel tried to keep pace with the culture of the time, offering compilations that now used snippets from music videos to help leverage MTV’s influence. But competition grew, both from mail order compilations and from “8 discs for a penny” marketers like the Columbia House Record Club. As the ’80s turned into the ’90s, K-tel’s competitors and imitators began moving to 1-800 numbers, multi-disc compilations, and mail-away offers, as well as memorably cheesy commercials.