Live Modern. The slogan of L&M cigarettes in 1958. The enticement of American advertising throughout the twentieth century. When this episode of Dragnet aired for the first time in April 1958, the sponsors were Post cereals and L&M cigarettes. Cigarettes and breakfast cereal created American television. Sometimes we forget this truth. Watch this segment through to the end – to the moment when Jack Webb, the producer-director, emerges from behind the stoic mask of detective Joe Friday and invites the television viewer of 1958 to Live Modern by smoking L&M cigarettes. Human memory has never been sufficient to the task of recalling the flow of television from one moment to the next. The stream of program segments, commercials, and interstitial announcements turns out to be magnificently self-erasing. History offers small recompense. Time wears away all bonds that once linked particular programs with particular commercial contexts. Programs circulate through the twilight of cultural memory shorn of their original commercials. The commercials, after all, were designed to expire following the fleeting half-life of a marketing campaign and then to disappear without a trace from the historical record. Episodes in syndicated repeats acquire attachments to new commercial imperatives, which also are quickly forgotten. The DVD box set completes the effacement of history by displaying the television series as a found object from a distant age, more kitsch than classic, like a cookie jar in Andy Warhol’s attic. So take these six minutes from NBC’s program schedule during the evening of April 10, 1958 and marvel at the startling incongruities in the flow of the old, weird television. To live modern in the world of Dragnet is to live hard-boiled. Emotion is a weakness, hyperbole unthinkable. The language of Dragnet, its mode of address, could not be further removed from the idiom of advertising. A boy has died in a brutal gang fight. Friday’s voiceover reports the moment when he and his partner encountered the mother:
11:45 pm. We broke the news of her son’s death to Mrs. Barson as gently as we could. She immediately became hysterical and Frank called the family doctor, who prescribed the proper sedatives.
Three decades before Oprah, the detectives are dispassionate, duty-bound to chastise the mother for her permissive parenting, which they presume has contributed to her son’s delinquency and death. At the commercial break, they abandon her on the sofa – bereft and alone in her grief. Cue the commercial for Post Grape-Nuts. To live modern in a Post cereal commercial is to live in a family whose joy briefly touches on delirium as mom, dad, sister, and brother find themselves singing and dancing with full hearts at the supermarket. (And, in contrast with the absent father of the Dragnet story, this father symbolically births the son in the commercial’s odd opening. How does this possibly make sense?) To live modern in the world of commercial television is to live in service to advertising. Dragnet owed its entire existence to the patronage of Liggett & Myers and its Chesterfield brand cigarettes. It was Chesterfield that sponsored Dragnet in its original radio incarnation beginning in 1949 and Chesterfield’s substantial advertising budget that convinced NBC to add a television version of Dragnet beginning in January 1952. In 1950 the Journal of the American Medical Association published the first major study definitively linking smoking to lung cancer. Tobacco companies responded to mounting public health concerns by introducing new brands with filter tips. Marketing implied the health benefits of filter tips over traditional cigarettes. Television in its first decade benefited from the financial windfall of these marketing campaigns for new cigarette brands. Liggett & Myers introduced L&M as its filter-tip brand and launched the brand by introducing it on Dragnet, a top-five program with a weekly audience of more than 30 million viewers. “Just what the doctor ordered,” L&M announced with its 1953 slogan. For a short time, the company turned to the tepid “Light and Mild.” The answer, at least for a moment in the flow of television in 1958, was to Live Modern with Jack Webb.