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TV History: Leave It To Beaver

by Christine Becker

This clip was uploaded for an assignment in Christine Becker's FTT 30461: History of Television class at the University of Notre Dame in Spring 2019. Check the commentary dropdown menu for a student's analysis of the clip.

The Exploitation of Children as Consumers in 1950s Television

by Maegan Dolan

Leave It To Beaver is a classic example of a1950s American domestic sitcom. Premiering on CBS in October of 1957, this television series portrayal of life through the eyes of a young all-American boy, called “the Beaver,” successfully ran until 1963 and was even released on DVD in 2010, showing the prominence of this show in 1950s American history, especially since it was one of the first shows targeted towards a youth audience. Leave It To Beaver was initially sponsored by Ralston Purina (which has since been acquired by Nestlé), with later seasons sponsored by General Electric and Chrysler Corporation. Throughout the seasons, it is easy to find a GE logo visible on all kitchen appliances or to see Mr. Cleaver driving a Chrysler when sponsored by those companies. The writers of this show, Bob Mosher and Joe Connelly, began their work for the radio show, Amos ‘n’ Andy, and continued when it moved to CBS television. They found inspiration for their scripts in their own families and children. Leave It To Beaver was originally filmed at Republic Studios in Studio City, Los Angeles, before moving to Universal Studios, using a single-camera set up. The production of Leave It To Beaver exemplifies the changes from the early 1950s through the early 1960s, with a transition from live recordings to telefilm, New York production to Hollywood studios, and the decline of the anthology show as formulaic sitcoms rose in preference.

This episode, titled “The Perfume Salesmen,” encapsulates several aspects of both TV history and the social context of the 1950s. During this time, both television and radio were sponsored by advertising agencies that utilized product integration and commercials to get more exposure in return for the programming. This enforcement of and increase in commercialism in the industry heavily relates to the social context, as television worked to encourage Americans “to make a break with the past” war-time mindset and “delivered audiences to advertisers by glorifying consumption” in order to stimulate the economy again (Lipsitz, page 359, 355). This episode is explicitly about salesmanship and making money in order to buy the new hottest consumer product, specifically by children, as the episode begins with the statement, “As you know, our kids think of all kinds of ways to make money.” The boys, Wally and Beaver, agreed to sell perfume bottles in return for a movie projector, which they planned to use to make more money showing movies. This represented the beginning of the shift from “going to theater” to “going to television” as the television became more commonly found in living rooms, but was still not a commodity (Spigel, page 13).

This episode furthers the ideal of the American nuclear family, with a working father and a house-bound mother, as most sitcoms of the time did: “…June the complete housewife seemingly always in an apron and pearls, Ward smiling broadly, the beneficent paterfamilias, as crisp in his business suit as an Aqua Velva man” (McDonald). Mr. and Mrs. Cleaver were loving parents that were very trusting and proud of their sons, even referring to them as “little angels,” ironically before they opened the letter claiming a law suit for not sending back money or returning the products. Mr. Cleaver’s addressment of this letter, however, stood out to me as one of the most significant lines in the episode: “I’ll just get the perfume and send it back to the company with a polite little note accusing them of exploiting child labor.” This statement is a metaphor that describes the way in which advertising companies play on the impressionable minds of young children – using their innocence and naivety to sell the “catcher’s mitt”-smelling perfume that would otherwise not leave the shelves. This is an empty threat by Mr. Cleaver as he goes on to tell the children how salesmanship is “hard work and sticking to it,” and that if they had wanted the projector badly enough they would have sold the perfume, which shows the persistence of marketers and advertisers as they continuously attempt to increase the consumerist tendencies of potential customers. Mr. Cleaver ends up agreeing to help sell the perfumes, telling his wife that he has “the type of personality that is irresistible to housewives.” This statement generalizes all women into one category: housewives, with the same interests and opinions. Mrs. Cleaver, however, refuses to let herself be defined in such a way as she responds that her husband will give him the money – referring right back to him, playing on the stereotypes of the male as the patriarch with the financial control. Mr. Cleaver’s acceptance of helping to sell his sons’ perfume to get them the projector represents “the logic of the episode, instructing us that fathers will lose their standing if they disappoint their families’ desires for new commodities” (Lipsitz, page 363).

The political atmosphere of the Red Scare and the Cold War during the 1950s is also hinted at during this episode, as Mrs. Cleaver fears that the box received by her sons might be a “machine gun or a bomb or something.” During the 1950s, women felt that they must stay home and make sure that everything is in order as to prevent the threat of communism from entering their domestic sphere, and to keep the “housing utopia” (Spigel, page 13). Mr. Cleaver’s response, however, is an attempt to assuage these fears as he jokes, “well, if it is, we’ll hear about it soon enough.”

The Cleaver family, and their story as portrayed on Leave It To Beaver, falls perfectly into the American ideal of the domestic sitcom that was a prime victim for advertisers to prey on in order to increase consumerism and teach Americans how to be American, even if that meant exploiting the youth and infiltrating the home from the bottom-up.




Sources:

Lipsitz, George. The Meaning of Memory: Family, Class, and Ethnicity in Early Network Television Programs. Cultural Anthropology, Vol. 1, No. 4. Nov.1986: pp. 355-387.

McDonald, William. “Leave It To Those 1950's Kids.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 31 Aug. 1997, www.nytimes.com/1997/08/31/movies/leave-it-to-those-1950-s-kids.html.

Spigel, Lynn. Installing the Television Set: Popular Discourses on Television and Domestic Space, 1948-55. Camera Obscura, 1988: pp. 11-47.

Excerpts from LEAVE IT TO BEAVER

This clip contains two excerpts from "The Perfume Salesmen" episode of LEAVE IT TO BEAVER.

from Leave It To Beaver (1957)
Creator: Joe Connelly, Bob Mosher
Distributor: Archive.org
Posted by Christine Becker
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