In the 1960s, Andy Warhol's paintings of Campbell soup cans and Brillo boxes were hailed as the Pop-Art of our culture. In the 1980s, a series of TV specials, ''Television's Greatest Commercials,'' is making basically the same kind of statement. And if television commercials are really the Pop-Art of this culture, then ''Television's Greatest Commercials'' must be considered a kind of electronic museum.
In 1982, Joie Albrecht and Scott Garen produced the first in the series, which aired on NBC. It proved to be the No. 1 show of the week in the Nielsen ratings.
Now, after screening well over 100,000 commercials, the same producers are presenting the fourth of the series, It's The Real Thing: Television's Greatest Commercials IV (NBC, Saturday, Nov. 26, 9-10 p.m.).
''These shows have tremendous appeal,'' Mr. Garen told me when I interviewed the two producers. ''In the beginning not many programmers understood that, because everybody complains about the number of commercials on TV. Then we did a solid hour of commercials and pulled tremendous ratings. They began to look at the idea of a show made up of commercials differently. They began to look at commercials differently, too.''
Garen stresses the nostalgia factor. ''There is great nostalgia for commercials; the deja vu is even stronger for TV commercials than for old movies. After all, most of us have seen the TV commercials hundreds of times, whereas we probably saw the old films once or twice. People sing along with the jingles they haven't thought about for 25 years. They are swept back in time.''
What is today's most successful TV commercial?
''Undoubtedly the Federal Express ads which come out of the Ally & Gargano Agency. They have been tremendously successful in boosting Federal Express' business, but in addition they have been so funny that people look forward to seeing them. Everybody remembers the fast-talker ad. In fact, one of the competitors is now airing an commercial which comments upon the fast talker. But over the years, the commercials for Volkswagen and Alka-Seltzer have been the most entertaining.''
Since the show includes foreign ads as well as American ads, which foreign ones are the best?
''Well, certainly the funniest are the British and the Japanese ads,'' Ms. Albrecht says. ''Most foreign ads which we see use a softer selling technique. The British ones have a very offbeat sense of humor.''
It used to be an axiom of the advertising profession that the more irritating the ad, the better it sells the product. American advertisers at one time gave up their entertaining ads, such as the popular Bob and Ray commercials, when it was alleged that they didn't sell products. Europeans, however, seem to have picked up the soft-sell idea and now it is making a comeback in the United States.
Is it still considered true that hard-sell ads sell the product better?
''The irritation factor still exists in many commercials, so it must be at least partly true. But we don't use them in our shows because we are going for entertainment . . . well, we do put on some of the old hard-sell commercials, because they seem so campy now. Hard sell has always been around and it probably always will be,'' Garen explains.
What commercial lines are remembered best by most people?
'' 'Ring around the collar' and 'Mother, I'd rather do it myself,' '' they agree.
Mr. Garen and Ms. Albrecht also agree that if one compares animated children's programming with animated children's commercials, it is apparent where the money is being spent. ''Commercials are so much better,'' Garen says. ''The production quality of commercials in most cases far exceeds the quality of the programs they interrupt. Look at it this way - very often a sitcom episode will cost $125,000 to produce, while one of the commercial interruptions costs as much as $250,000 . . . and sometimes even more.''
The producers commented that many major stars started in commercials - Dustin Hoffman and Richard Dreyfus, among many others. Ms. Albrecht adds, ''And some of the best of the new film directors come out of the commercial milieu, mostly British: Ridley Scott (''Alien''), Hugh Hudson (''Chariots of Fire''), Alan Parker (''Midnight Express'').'' Some of them still direct commercials as well as theatrical films. In television, John Hawkesworth, director-producer of ''Upstairs, Downstairs'' and ''The Duchess of Duke Street,'' did TV commercials for an American agency in his early years.
What seems to be the latest trend in TV commercials?
''High-tech, fast pace, fast cut, pastel palette of colors, as in the Chevrolet, Shasta, and Pepsi Light ads,'' Garen says. ''Lots of computer animation.''
What makes a bad commercial?
Garen says, ''If you see it and are so taken with the entertainment values that you don't remember the name of the product. But from our point of view that makes it a good ad, because we are doing an entertainment show.''
Already there is a fifth ''Television's Greatest Commercials'' show in the works. To do the shows, Mr. Garen and Ms. Albrecht maintain a full-time staff of 15, plus several lawyers. There are usually close to 200 sponsors involved in each show, each requiring a contract, clearances for the actors, etc.
The two take their shows seriously. Garen says, ''We never forget that commercials have become icons for part of the American culture. We are a consumer-oriented society. Network TV is in the business of selling products, attracting the largest audiences to consume products. And because several generations have now grown up with commercials an integral part of their lives, the TV commercial has become our folklore.
''But our shows are more than just entertainment . . . (a) message takes place on many levels.
''In each show we have had themes, expressed in pop songs. First there was 'Did you ever have to make up your mind?' Then, 'Shop around.' Now, in this new show, the theme is 'You made me love you,' which is the essence of what TV commercials are all about. Buy products for a supposedly fuller and happier life.''
May I suggest a theme song for the next ''Television's Greatest Com-mercials''?
''Buy . . . Buy . . . Happiness.''