A (Very) Brief History of Advertising


Marketing has been around a lot longer than you may think. In fact, commercial messages, lost-and-found advertisements and even political campaigns can be traced back to ancient civilisations around the world; from Greece, Rome and Pompeii to Egypt and Arabia. And things haven’t changed all that much…

Pre-20th Century marketing
Following these old-time pioneers, the ensuing millennia saw the continuation of small-scale marketing communication across the world, mostly effected by street callers who were hired by stallholders to promote their wares. In seventeenth-century England, weekly newspapers began to print classified ads and descriptive pieces on the latest books and medicines available on the market, including their respective costs. The French newspaper La Presse pioneered the concept of paid advertising in 1836, allowing it to lower its cost for consumers while upping its profits; an idea soon copied by newspapers the world over. But it wasn’t until the late nineteenth century, when better technology allowed the printing of colour and illustrations, that mass-marketing really started to take shape.

One of the earliest marketing success stories is Pears’ Soap. Pears’ was no stranger to innovation – it was the original transparent soap as well as the world’s first registered brand – but it was its early marketing campaigns that really made an impression on Victorian Britain. These early adverts, now highly collectable, consisted of renowned ‘fine art’ images – carefully chosen to suggest the soap’s quality and purity. As a result of Pears’ successful campaign, manufacturers realised that promoting their wares in innovative ways to large audiences was vital for survival. Marketing brokers and proofreaders came together to form a brand new creative industry… the advertising agency.

Pears' Soap Adverts

War, (huh, yeah,) what is it good for?
The outbreak of World War I heralded the next step in the marketing revolution. The British propaganda machine produced posters, flyers and newspaper adverts to convince its own citizens to fight, ration or otherwise contribute to ‘the war effort’, and also to persuade the Americans to join. The campaign was so effective that Adolf Hitler wrote in Mein Kampf that Germany lost the war simply because it lost the propaganda battle – a mistake he was sure not to repeat two decades later.

Soon after the war, product advertisement began to appear in the mass media. Cinemas showed advertisements prior to film screenings and products even began to creep into the films themselves – Hershey’s chocolate was prominently ‘placed’ in the 1927 film Wings, for example. But undoubtedly the dominant mass media device of the 1920s was radio. While the UK adopted a public funding model for the BBC, America pioneered the capitalist approach that allowed the commercial sponsorship of programmes or timeslots. It wasn’t long before advertising companies held such sway over American radio stations that they could dictate or even write their own content for the schedules.

Public arena
Soon after the radio revolution, large billboards began to appear on busy roads – the start of a public arena advertising trend that would grow exponentially as the twentieth century rolled on. By the 1990s, the general public was subjected to advertisements and ambient media on buses, trains, trams and airplanes, on supermarket trolleys and receipts, on park benches and in school playgrounds. In fact, in recent years there have been increasingly fewer public arenas completely free from advertising – you may not see a Goodyear Blimp flying over your local park, but you’ll probably see at least one spotty teenager with a familiar tick on his chest.

One of the biggest arenas for advertising is sport. In the 21st century almost every aspect of a sporting event – from the stadiums to the kits, the pitch to the half-time pies – can be sponsored by a local or multinational company.

The ‘golden period’
Throughout the twentieth century, radio and print advertising also continued as successful marketing formats, though both arguably reached their peak (i.e. their optimum effectiveness) by the 1960s. The ‘golden period’ of print advertising produced some of the most innovative and creative campaigns in history, including the now iconic Volkswagen Beetle ‘Lemon’ and ‘Think Small’ ads.

Volkswagen Adverts

Small screen success
By the 1950s television had become the dominant mass marketing format and, as of 2008, it still is. America spent some years experimenting with single sponsors for programmes and timeslots before pioneering the multi-sponsor commercial break. The latter soon became the standard and was adopted by ITV, the UK’s first commercial television channel, for its 1955 launch. The commercial break is still the most effective, and therefore the most expensive, advertising format available – a thirty-second slot during the 2008 Super Bowl set advertisers back a cool $2.7 million.

Of course, television has significantly grown since its inception, with further terrestrial channels coming in the 80s and 90s, the launch of British Satellite Broadcasting in 1986 and the gradual initiation of digital television from 1998. This has meant hours and hours more television time, allowing for special interest channels and programmes that could host small target audience product ads. We even saw channels entirely devoted to advertising, such as QVC and the Home Shopping Network. But almost as soon as the television revolution began, another medium popped up to spoil the party.

The internet
The biggest marketing development of the last decade has happened in cyberspace. A significant proportion of a company’s advertising budget is now spent online in the form of websites, email communication, search engine advertising, banner/pop-up ads and Web 2.0 strategies (such as social networking sites, wikis and blogs). The web allows marketers to tailor their adverts to people with specific interests and geographical locations at a fraction of the cost that a similar exercise would cost on television. The technology also allows an advertiser to easily, inexpensively and more immediately track the successful areas of the campaign and adapt it accordingly. However there are also drawbacks, such as the requirement for customers to use newer technologies and the barrier of low-speed connections in creating content-rich websites.

As of 2008, internet marketing is growing faster than advertising in any other media, and is widely predicted to overtake television in terms of advertising spending by 2020, if not sooner.

Recent developments
Meanwhile, back in the real world, advertising has entered a new era of low-budget subversion. More creative formats like ‘guerilla marketing’ (hard-hitting campaigns based on human psychology) and ‘viral advertising’ (using networks like Facebook and YouTube to get individuals to voluntarily pass on your marketing message) have become wildly popular and, on occasion, incredibly successful.

Examples of Viral Marketing

Product placement has become more prevalent in cinema and computer games, and though it is currently unusual to see blatant product placement on British TV, things may be changing. Personal Video Recorders like Sky+ allow users to fast-forward through commercial breaks, so many companies are keen to exploit product placement soon to ensure they continue to have strong national television presence. Advertisers have also had to embrace online and on demand television, with ads appearing on ITV Catch Up and 4OD programmes, as well as on BBC World’s online content.

The future of advertising
So what does the future hold for the advertising industry? With more television, gaming and interactive content moving online, and the Internet becoming easily accessible by mobile devices like phones and MP3 players, it’s clear that marketing must evolve for an increasingly technological generation. It is the charge of the advertising creative to discover new and innovative ways to make our campaigns impact on a wide audience. This may involve simple alteration of tried and tested marketing methods, or may require entirely new ways of thinking. In tomorrow’s world, could adverts appear on the surface of the moon at night, or on the inside of your eyelids while you sleep? The truth is that the future of advertising is yet to be decided, and the only limitation is the human imagination. It will be fascinating to see what the industry can come up with next.

This article was first published by Red C Magazine on 11th December 2008. You can see the original post here.

For more about the history of marketing – and for all your advertisement copywriting needs – just get in touch.

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