The Art of the Sell — “I Want My MTV”

These posts celebrate the movie trailers, movie posters, commercials, print ads, and other promotional material that stand as their own works of art. 

“Just moments ago, all of the VJs and the crew here at MTV collectively hit our executive producer, Sue Steinberg, over the head with a bottle of champagne and behold: a new concept is born,” Mark Goodman said to a camera shortly after midnight on Saturday, August 1, 1981. He promised the new cable network would deliver to viewers “the best of TV combined with the best of radio.” I suppose it’s up for debate whether it truly delivered the optimal qualities of the name mediums, but across the next decade there’s no question it propelled a revolution in the music business.

Before MTV could change all the rules of why and how songs became hits, it had to actually get in front of viewers. As opposed to the endless landscape of minutely targeted networks that make us the average channel lineup now (not to mention the streaming options that deliver programming on demand), space on the dial — not really proverbial at the time  — was at a high premium. MTV was ready to rock, but it was reaching precious few sets.

Network executives knew the only way MTV would expand its reach was through viewer demand. Cable operators didn’t care about the cajoling by the people running the network, but if the households footing the monthly bill for pay television called up and demanded the addition of MTV to their channel lineups, then things could change. MTV hired the ad agency run by the famed George Lois, and he essentially recycled a concept from one of his cereal commercials made a couple decades earlier. Instead of a child angrily demanding Maypo, there would be a procession of rock stars yelling, “I want my MTV!”

The campaign was deployed strategically to different major media markets. According to Tom Freston, the president of MTV’s parent company Viacom at the cable channel’s launch, the response was immediate.

“Within three weeks, every cable operator in the market would call up and say, ‘Okay, I give up. I’ll take it,'” Freston remembered.

Before long, MTV was just about everywhere, and — for a time, anyway — it was practically impossible to turn a song into a hit without an accompanying eye-catching video. I doubt even the more optimistic early adopters of the channel saw that coming. Outcomes can be surprising when you give the people what they want.


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