Commercial television made its debut in 1939 as one of the innovations at the 1939 World’s Fair. The fair’s opening was televised, complete with a speech by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt — the first U.S. President to appear on television. But television really didn’t take off until the early 1950s, when advances in technology made TV programs easier to produce and much more watchable. Many advertisers initially were cautious about taking advantage of this new medium, but Johnson & Johnson, having been a creative advertiser throughout its history, made an early decision to become one of television’s first major sponsors. The Company sponsored a British-American television show designed to appeal to every generation of the family – and especially to kids: The Adventures of Robin Hood.
The sponsorship of an early television show proved to be an excellent decision, since TV helped the Company strengthen its leadership position in its heritage consumer products –including BAND-AID® Brand Adhesive Bandages. (Readers may naturally suspect that, if BAND-AID® Brand Adhesive Bandages had existed during the period of history in which the show was set, Robin Hood and his friends would have used many, many of them.)
In addition to reaching people through print and radio ads, the Company could now reach people through the new medium of television, as this very early BAND-AID® Brand Adhesive Bandages commercial from 1948 — complete with early special effects — shows.
Television advertising took the old saying “a picture is worth a thousand words” to an entirely new level: if a picture in a magazine ad was worth a thousand words, how much more impactful was a moving picture, with sound?
The Company had looked for shows to sponsor that exemplified family programming, and its first major choice was “The Adventures of Robin Hood,” a 30-minute long program filmed on location in England and shown in the U.K., on CBC in Canada and on CBS in the United States.
Starring Richard Greene, The Adventures of Robin Hood was filmed in Sherwood Forest and other actual locations associated with the legend of Robin Hood. Johnson & Johnson was one of two major sponsors of the show, and each episode alternated content featuring the sponsors. The sponsors were introduced in the title sequence, after Robin Hood fires an arrow from his bow, and they were acknowledged at the end of each episode as well.
The series was set, as one would expect, in the reign of King Richard I (He’s the king who was known as Richard the Lion-Heart) during the late 1100s, with Robin Hood, Friar Tuck, Maid Marian, Little John and the rest of the familiar characters facing off against the Sheriff of Nottingham, Prince John and other legendary antagonists. The show featured the sort of swashbuckling adventures that children (and their parents!) in the U.S., Canada and the U.K. loved, but many of the episodes were based on serious topics such as concepts from English common law and the importance of education.
According to Wikipedia, the show’s writers prided themselves on the accuracy of the historical context of these themes and some of the historical situations (despite some glaringly obvious 1950s clothing, hairstyles and other details), courtesy of the historical consultants to the program. For instance, wicked Prince John of the Robin Hood stories was, in real life, King John, in whose reign the Magna Carta – the basis of much of our modern laws — was written. (King John had such a spectacularly bad reputation throughout most of history that no other English king since him has used that name.) Those themes of ethics, fairness and social justice were incorporated into Robin Hood’s adventures. But the themes went deeper, too: The Adventures of Robin Hood hired writers who had been blacklisted and prevented from working in Hollywood during the McCarthy era in the early to mid-1950s.
During the McCarthy era, accusations of disloyalty and subversion were leveled against many men and women in the entertainment industry (even reaching as far as superstars like Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn) due to suspected political beliefs or associations, or because they had refused to cooperate with investigators. The resulting blacklist that was created prevented those accused from working, and it destroyed many lives and careers. Perhaps the most famous blacklisted writer who worked on The Adventures of Robin Hood was Ring Lardner. Another writer for the show was screenwriter and film noir producer Adrian Scott. Famed screenwriter Howard Koch (the writer of Casablanca), also was blacklisted, and he worked on The Adventures of Robin Hood for a time as the script editor. The blacklisted writers were listed in the credits under pseudonyms, to avoid alerting studio executives.
In addition to featuring some very famous writers working under assumed names, The Adventures of Robin Hood also featured some very famous faces before they were famous, including Desmond Llewelyn — Q in 17 James Bond films, British actor Leslie Phillips, Leo McKern of Rumpole of the Bailey fame, movie and TV actor Edward Mulhare, character actor Donald Pleasence (he played Prince John in the show), and — for all of the Doctor Who fans out there, Patrick Troughton, who played the Second Doctor. Decades later, The Adventures of Robin Hood’s distinctive theme song was parodied by Monty Python in their famous Dennis Moore sketch on Monty Python’s Flying Circus.
The Adventures of Robin Hood television series is remembered with great fondness by those who grew up watching it, and the show still has many fans today. There’s even an Adventures of Robin Hood Appreciation Society in the U.K. Half a century after Johnson & Johnson sponsored this groundbreaking show in the early days of television, TV is everywhere – you can even watch it on your smart phone now. And Johnson & Johnson remains an advertiser on that medium that we took a chance on in the early 1950s, continuing to sponsor family-oriented programs like the 2002 award-winning film Door To Door (part of a series of films Johnson & Johnson sponsored in the early 2000s) to our For All You Love campaign today. By the way, continuing our tradition of being an early adopter of new media, Johnson & Johnson was also an early adopter of social media – with this blog — way back in 2006.
You can watch episodes of The Adventures of Robin Hood (with the sponsor segments edited out, unfortunately) on YouTube. Here’s one of the classic episodes:
Are there any readers who watched the show when they were kids? If so, who were your favorite characters? And what was your favorite memory from the show?