Early color television was definitely a tough sell; while there were demonstrations earlier (including one in theaters in 1951), in 1954, RCA became the first to sell a color TV for consumers: the CT-100. Black and white televisions had been around for long enough to embed themselves firmly in America, and the amount of programming in color was limited. Only 8,500 color TVs were made in the US in the first half of 1954.
You’re right to sense there was an odd paradox in trying to sell an experience that was impossible to experience as intended in black-and-white; RCA (the biggest color manufacturer through the 1950s) put a big emphasis on getting people to see the televisions in person.
They sent promo kits for hosting Howdy Doody parties (Howdy Doody is a popular children’s show from the 1950s); one of the dealers in Chicago held Tuesday afternoon parties where people attending got Howdy Doody gifts and the adults bringing kids registered themselves in a special Howdy Doody ledger.
RCA also pushed for dealers to host “special occasion parties” for football and holiday broadcasts. NBC held a “color week” every year starting in 1955 where television dealers had banners reading “Every Night is Color TV night”.
This black-and-white 1954 print ad gives a good sense of the attitude, boldface emphasis mine:
RCA Victor brings TV to “life” more brilliantly than ever — in FULL, NATURAL COLOR! Words cannot describe it … you must see it! See pictures in vivid, life-like detail, glowing with color from the most delicate tints to the richest deep tones.
However, we’re guessing what you really want to see is an actual television ad. The most prominent one we can think of that intended to showcase black-and-white-vs-color came in 1963.
This was first shown during Disney World of Color, co-sponsored by none other than RCA. Not only was this done during a program where color is embedded in the very idea made it more likely consumers would seek a color television out to watch it, but just in case a consumer did see the ad in black and white, the main character’s enthusiasm tries to carry the message; just like modern VR ads, the screen can’t necessarily show what’s really going on, but they can show the reaction of others to what’s going on. (“Wow” gets said a lot — just like trying to describe color television in black-and-white, you’ll get the best idea if you just watch the ad.)
Richard Sherman worked on the first episode of World of Color:
What happened is they just had an explosion of sales… color television was in from that time on. It just exploded, the market opened up. RCA was trying to sell color sets, that was the whole new wave of entertainment and with Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color it turned the corner. They were going through the roof with those sales. It was fantastic.
2. Murray, S. (2018). Bright Signals: A History of Color Television. Duke University Press.