My latest obsession over this past week has been watching The Best of the Flatt & Scruggs Show, which a popular video delivery company currently streams. If you’re not familiar with them, Lester Flatt, Earl Scruggs, and the Foggy Mountain Boys were one of the seminal bluegrass bands of the (late) ’40s, ’50s, and ’60s. Scruggs pretty much invented the three-finger picking style of the banjo that most banjo players (at least bluegrass banjo players) use today. They’re most famous for writing and performing “The Ballad of Jed Clampett,’ and they appeared occasionally on The Beverly Hillbillies as a version of themselves who grew up as neighbors of the Clampetts back when they all lived in the hills.

Anyway, their show was produced and broadcast during the late ’50s and early ’60s and consisted of them playing their songs (sometimes along with guests like Mother Maybelle Carter and a seven-year-old Ricky Scaggs). They’re crammed onto a small set that barely fits all six musicians, and they only have two microphones (at least that we can see) to capture all the sound.

The music is fantastic—Earl Scruggs is to the banjo what Jimi Hendrix is to the guitar.  Both Uncle Josh Graves, who is credited with introducing the Dobro to bluegrass music, and fiddle player Paul Warren are tops in their field as well. Curly Seckler (mandolin) and Cousin Jake Tullock (bass) round out the band and provide the higher harmonies when they sang ensemble pieces.

But it’s the program’s function as a time capsule that makes it most compelling to watch for me. Their Colonel Sanders-style string bowties, pants hiked up just a little too high, and right-tipping cowboy hats all speak to a time long gone. And Lester Flatt’s calm, polite manner when introducing songs, and commenting on the band’s performance after each number (“Why, that’s just fine, boys.”) also harkens back to a time when people made a point of presenting themselves more formally when in public.

Another key part of the show is its sponsorship: Martha White Mills, millers of Martha White’s Hot RizeMartha White Logo flour, corn meal, and cake mixes and the PET Milk Company, makers of PET Evaporated Milk, first choice of cooks.

The commercials are integrated into the show. After a song, Flatt introduces the product, and the announcer takes over and shows part of a recipe along with a woman from the Martha White Kitchen. After the commercial, the band comes back, plays a short jingle about Martha White, and goes back into another songs. Watch this clip:

This kind of advertising wasn’t uncommon in those days, and it was a carry-over from the radio. Personalities from Bob Hope to Arthur Godfrey to Howard Stern have done live commercials during their regular radio shows. Grouch Marx, during his You Bet Your Life show, became so identified with DeSoto automobiles that the company actually starting offering “Groucho Specials” and their dealerships.

While researching for this post, I also found a commercial for Grape Nuts cereal with Andy and Barney from The Andy Griffith Show complete with laugh track.

I’m not sure exactly why this type of in-show advertising waned, but I assume it has to do with some kind of artistic integrity. The producers/actors/networks wanted to keep the content of the programs independent of the advertisers. It was probably also an issue when shows went into syndication and were no longer sponsored by the original company as a rerun.

I was talking to my mom about the commercials with the Flatt & Scruggs Show, and we wondered if that was something worth going back to.

With the possible exception of the Super Bowl, most Americans despise commercials. We either fast forward through them or channel surf during them. It’s also the time that we use to go to the bathroom or run to the kitchen for a snack. Commercials are intrusive and obnoxious. Even the ones that start out entertaining wear on us after a few viewings.

Personally, I would be more likely to watch a commercial if it was integrated back into the show. One of the great things about live commercials is that you don’t know what might happen. There is a classic clip from an Alpo commercial that Ed McMahon does during The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, where Johnny steps in to help out, which makes ad more entertaining.

Wouldn’t we all be more likely to watch live commercials from our favorite talk show host/comedian? Don’t you think David Letterman, Jon Stewart, or Ellen DeGeneres could do better commercials than some corporate ad people? I might even watch shows I wouldn’t normally watch just to see their commercials. Can you imagine Charlie Sheen in the middle of Two and a Half Men shilling for some sponsor, “Lemon Pledge—Winning!”

Okay, maybe that’s not the best example (and I can’t believe I actually used the hackneyed “Winning” joke).

I guess the tough thing would be to convince the talent to do something like this. As an avid Howard Stern listener for years, I know that his live commercials can get out of control, which can keep listeners’ attention. I also know that he HATES doing live commercials. He wants to rest his voice for a few minutes or iron something out with the next segment of the show. He doesn’t want to be bothered by having to talk about this product or service, but they pay him well, so he does it.

But maybe if it meant people would watch commercials more, and therefore increase the probability that they would actually purchase something, the advertisers may be more likely to pay the talent more to do the ads themselves.

How desperate are advertisers these days? Do commercials actually entice people to buy the products being advertised? I can think of only three instances where a commercial got me to try a new product: Vanilla Coke, the Pledge Fabric Sweeper for Pet Hair, and Caramel Pretzel Klondike Bars (this last one from Howard Stern). That’s it in all my decades of TV watching (or radio listening).

Although I do plan on seeing if my local grocery has Martha White self-rising corn meal with Hot Rize. Goodness Gracious! It’s good.

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