Masters Countdown: Why So Few Commercials?

Augusta National’s proposed 1966 broadcast contract with CBS required both that the tournament be shown in color and that commercials be limited to two minutes per half hour. CBS executives were appalled by the advertising provisions, which they viewed as naïve. But Clifford Roberts, the club’s chairman, believed that commercials were not only less intrusive but more effective if they were used sparingly. (Roberts also felt that sixty-second commercials, the standard at the time, were too long—a view that advertisers and television networks later came to believe themselves.)

Roberts wasn’t opposed to advertising. Indeed, the club and not CBS had been the source of all the broadcast’s sponsors during the decade the tournament had been on the air. Augusta National’s earliest television contracts had called for CBS to pay the club a fee of $10,000 if it carried the broadcast on a “sustaining” basis—that is, without a commercial sponsor—and $40,000 if an acceptable advertiser could be found. CBS had failed to find a sponsor for either 1956 or 1957—a fact that may seem astonishing to a modern viewer but was not necessarily unusual at the time—so the first two broadcasts were commercial-free.

In 1958, the club stepped in and provided a sponsor of its own: American Express, which remained with the broadcast until 1962. Travelers became a sponsor in 1959. Cluett, Peabody & Co., the manufacturer of Arrow shirts, replaced American Express in 1962, and was in turn replaced by Cadillac in 1969. (Not coincidentally, American Express, Travelers, Cluett-Peabody, and General Motors—as well as Young & Rubicam, the advertising agency that represented the early sponsors—were all run by club members.) Roberts had first suggested Cadillac as a sponsor in 1958, but CBS had rejected the idea. “Television is a mass medium,” a network executive responded dismissively, “and Cadillacs are not merchandised to the masses—even though it appears that way in some parts of the country.”

Roberts felt that the best commercials were ones that fit in with the tournament as seamlessly as possible. He especially like ones that had golf themes, if not Masters themes, and he encouraged advertisers to take advantage of the club as a shooting location. The Arrow commercials were shot on the course itself shortly before the tournament began. One—a laughably sexist tableau featuring two attractive young models wearing Arrow’s “Mr. Golf” and “Miss Golf” shirts, which cost five dollars and were made of a cotton-and-Dacron blend called Decton—was filmed on the practice putting green; another featured two couples enjoying a friendly match at Amen Corner. In 1964, one Arrow commercial showed a Decton-clad young man enjoying a beverage behind the clubhouse and then hitting a ball with a Masters logo on it.

Despite CBS’s objections, the club refused to back down on the commercial issue. Roberts knew that the Miss America Pageant had won a similar concession, and he made it clear that he was prepared to change networks in order to get what he wanted, as the pageant had. CBS had to give in. The restriction became a part of the signed agreement, and a similar one has been a part of every one of the club’s television contracts since that time. The minimal number of commercials during a Masters broadcast is even more striking today than it was then. In the early sixties, the standard allocation for advertisements in a two-and-a-half hour program was eighteen minutes. Today, programs sometimes cram nearly that much advertising into a single hour.

Although the terms of the proposed contract were tough, Roberts’s aim was not to harm or humiliate CBS but rather to guarantee that the Masters would receive the sort of television treatment he felt it deserved. Most of the key provisions actually worked to the ultimate benefit of the network. With fewer commercials to work into the broadcast, the program’s directors had a broader canvas on which to work and were in far less danger of cutting away from important action—a major peril in the days before instant replays. Even the insistence on color probably helped CBS, by forcing the network to take a necessary step somewhat earlier than it would have done on its own.

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