The history of advertising goes back to the days of cave paintings and my goal is not to provide you with an encyclopedic account of advertising milestones throughout time. This being a sales and marketing website, my goal is to look at advertising developments over the last 150 years or so which is when modern advertising was shaped and took the form that we have come to know it today. Along the way, I will analyze important turning points in how modern marketing concepts have developed as well as introduced you to some of the giants who shaped the world of business and made modern advertising what it is.
I kid you not when I talk about prehistoric advertising because apparently it has been around for thousands of year. The ancient Greeks, Romans and Arabs all had forms of advertising as did many parts of Asia, Africa and South America. I am more interested in developments in modern advertising, however, and want to show how people and progress since the 1800s has formed sales and marketing as we know it today. The conclusion I have reached is that the elements that make up modern advertising have been around for at least the last 100 years and there is a lot we can still learn from advertising greats of the past.
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The exact beginnings of modern advertising can be traced to weekly newspapers in London that began running ads in the 17th century. The prolific businessman, inventor and statesman Benjamin Franklin published notices of “new advertisements” of products and services as early as 1729 in his Pennsylvania Gazette and the fact that it was still a revolutionary concept is evidenced by the fact that many papers refused to run ads. They eventually did catch on and become mainstream and in 1840 the first advertising agency was also established in Philadelphia. Early ad agencies in the history of advertising were simply brokers of newspaper advertising spaces and did not have creative input into the ads themselves (which were decidedly uncreative!).
A couple of others developments in the 1800s bear pointing out, the first of which is that it was in the middle of this century that sales as we know it evolved in the form of traveling salesman whose numbers grew into the hundreds of thousands in the US. The second thing I want to point out in the history of advertising is how closely advertising, sales and marketing are to the work of great promoters like circus man P. T. Barnum who lived in that century. Barnum used a combination of outlandish advertisements for his “greatest show on earth” as well as delivering the goods in term of real entertainment that people enjoyed. If Barnum had lived in our times, he would have used exactly the same formulas for creating publicity but using different tools.
The History of Advertising: Thomas Barrat
With the exception of occasional slogans, advertising until the end of the 19th century was more or less a bland announcements of goods and services for sale with not was much of the creative selling we see today. A central personality who changed all of this was Thomas Barratt who was the Chairman of the Pears soap company and whose advertising genius led him to become known as the “Father of Advertising”. I cannot say enough about how Barratt's role in the history of advertising sowed the seeds of the phenomenal power of modern advertising to affect the mass consciousness. His techniques were revolutionary for the time and I want to provide you with some examples of his amazing ingenuity and insight that associated Pears with progress and refinement and propelled it to become the #1 soap of the day.
Barratt was one of the first people in the history of advertising to understand the value of words and images in order to promote ideas. His slogan, “Good morning. Have you used Pears soap?” made the brand famous and he would purchase the rights to works of art and then turn them into advertisements for Pears soap. An example of this is the John Millais painting of a boy blowing bubbles which he turned into a promotion for Pears through the simple addition of a bar of soap which was added to the foreground of the picture. The Pears slogan and the “Bubbles” ad successfully promoted the company well into the new century. Barratt was aware of the need to continue to reinvent a brand in order to sustain interest in it and said, “An idea that was effective a generation ago would fall flat, stale, and unprofitable if presented to the public today”.
As well as having a sound knowledge of the power of advertising to create demand and laying the foundation for executing creative advertising ideas using pictures and messages, Barrat succeeeded in helping the Pears brand transcend mere soap and become a symbol of European civilization and regality. Among his outstanding promotional efforts was the Pears Annual catalog which promoted art as well as the brand and an annual beauty contest to find a child to represent the brand (many of whom went on to become actors or models). Barratt also turned out to be a formidalbe Guerrilla Marketer who employed promotional gimmicks that rival the best of viral marketing today (albeit with less modern methods). An example of this is his branding the word “Pears” on and distributing 500,000 French centimes, which were interchangeable with English pennies. The resulting publicity increased sales and also led to a new law being passed to outlaw foreign money being used in lieu of British currency.
The History of Advertising: Early 20th Century
Around the turn of the century is when the history of advertising pushed key concepts in persuasive advertising into the domain of the general public. Prior to then, it was solitary geniuses like Thomas Barrat who lighted the way for the rest of sales and marketing professionals to follow many years later. In 1902, the journal Printers' Ink wrote, “More attractive than fine pictures, more potent than fine language, are the Why and Wherefore of the goods - the Reasons”. Walter Dill Scott published, “The Psychology of Advertising in Theory and Practice” that same year, which was followed by another advertising classic, “The Art of Modern Advertising” by Earnest Elmo Calkins in 1905. The key is the understanding that creativity and emotion was far more powerful than simply showing off yourself and how great your products and services are!
An interesting development in the history of advertising was the use of sex in an advertisement. Compare the early ad of Woodbury soap above to the later one which appeared in 1911 and was by all standards quite provocative for the times. I might add that this approach did not enable Woodbury to overtake Pears and their creativity and that even though “sex sells”, intelligent advertising sells more! Nevertheless, if you spend some time looking at ads from the turn of the century up until more recently on AdClassix.com, you'll notice the emergence of this and other common advertising themes that most people are familiar with today. You will also see how ads progressed from being merely informative to being persuasive by appealing to the emotions, values and lifestyle of your customer.
Advertising continued to grow in popularity and was used by the British (1914 ad) and US (1917 ad) governments as a recruiting tool for World War I. After the setback of the Great Depression which slowed the advance of the history of advertising, we once again see its resurgence in use in World War II - and later conflicts - in the form of propaganda. Hitler's propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels was given exclusive control of all media in Germany during the war and made many significant advances in the principles of using propaganda as an effective war tool. The Allies also engaged in extensive advertising and as it was used successfully by both the Axis and Ally propaganda machines for World War II.
The History of Advertising: The “Roaring '20s”
Madison Avenue in New York is traditionally thought of as the birthplace and mainstay of modern advertising but it was a Chicago advertising agency that solidified the tenets of 20th century adverting at the start of the century with the help of another advertising giant. Albert Lasker - "The Man Who Sold America"
A large part of Lasker's success was surrounding himself with other men of genius and copywriting greats. Relatively early in his career he met Canadian John Kennedy who differentiated between “news” and “advertising” said that the latter was ”salesmanship in print”. This is the key differentiator between the informative versus persuasive approach in the history advertising that I have been talking about which was developed in the early 20th century. Later on, Lasker was to hire another copywriting great by the name of Claude C. Hopkins at the astounding salary of $185,000 per year (which is still a great salary over 100 years later!). Like Lasker and other advertising greats, Hopkins believed in precision in advertising, in large part by exhaustively measuring the effect of different ads, headlines and copy in terms of response rates. Hopkins' groundbreaking 1923 book Scientific Advertising is still widely read today and has been deemed indispensable reading by most advertising masters since it was published.
There is one other advertising and copywriting great from the 1920s who I would like to mention and that is John Caples (scroll down for bios of other advertising greats). Caples did not work with Lasker but was nonetheless a force in advertising and is best known for what is widely considered to be the best ad ever written (a bold statement, it is true!). The ad for piano instruction services is titled, "They Laughed When I Sat Down At the Piano..." and was written in 1925 when Caples was only 25. You can click on the picture above to see the ad in its entirety and you will note the personable nature of the copy. Caples had discovered that people love stories and are motivated more by emotion than by facts and figures. That is why his nuanced description of a young man playing the piano perfectly created such a powerful image in people's minds and caused the ad to be such a sensation.
The History of Advertising: Mad Men
After the Great Depression, the resurgence of advertising - and industry in general - was marked by the postwar affluence of the 1950s. In advertising, this meant the rise of the Madison Avenue advertising firms that drive the industry to this day and were pioneered by giants in modern advertising like Leo Burnett, William Bernbach and David Oglivy. All of these men were great copywriters as well as advertisers in the sense of the visual media like color TV and magazines that began to become widely available at that time. In fact, it can be argued that mass production in conjunction with mass media is what created modern advertising and if you throw in the development of modern psychology that took place at this time, you have most all of the ingredients for the changes that took place in the history of advertising during this period.
The 1950s and 60s was a time within the history of advertising of the rise of advertising icons like The Marlboro Man, the Pillsbury Doughboy, Tony the Tiger and Ronald McDonald which are still among the most well known brand icons to this day. It was when TV executives invented advertising breaks (as opposed to allowing brands to influence actual shows). It was a time of the use of Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs and other psychological studies and methodologies for getting people to buy. It was also when advertising was transformed from science to art, at least according to Bernbach who stated: "Advertising is not a science, it is persuasion, and persuasion is an art, it is intuition that leads to discovery, to inspiration, it is the artist who is capable of making the consumer feel desire."
There is a philosophical question that underlies the history of advertising which is that of whether advertising can actually create demand or whether it merely serves existing demand. My own view is the former, that powerful words and images can move people to take action that they had not previously even conceived. That is where discovery comes into the picture, which is such an integral part of the human experience. It is why companies like Apple can continue to come up with market-making innovative products like the iPod, iPhone and iPad which were hitherto unknown but ended up creating whole markets of millions of consumers in record time.
Beyond that, I want to leave this history of advertising here after providing you with the building blocks of how advertising became persuasive, emotional and personal. While tools and technologies have changed, the essential formula for successful advertising has been well in force since the 20th century. The last few decades have seen the development of advertising based on relationship, lifestyle and values as well as social advertising as evidenced by phenomena such as crowdsourcing, social media marketing and viral marketing.
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