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  • Shreya Gulati

Advertising Through The Ages

How do you trace the roots of something as ancient as mankind? Advertising is almost as old as human existence. Over the course of time, it’s changed its form, ways, channels but the intent and target to influence have retained their ground. The journey ranges from verbal exchanges, newspapers and billboards to radio, television and digital media. Town criers are replaced by radios, print by digital and pop-ups by ad targeting, but be it in any manner, advertising adapts and follows us pretty much everywhere. This sector has displayed a rather phenomenal evolution in terms of growth visually, commercially and ideologically, so let’s decode advertising together, one era at a time!


Advertising began the same way communication did - with signs and symbols. One of the former signs were to highlight a nearby place where people could rest and change their horses. Another common one was advertised by a beer jug, the ‘pub’ sign. Contrary to our teenager-laden twenty-first-century pubs, these ones were rather simple public places for gatherings. Since class distinction

limited the way people could interact, here everyone could freely come together and mingle irrespective of any limitations, hence these places were a public favourite. Betting, cockfighting and boxing, basically anything that would be considered illegal today, were their entertainment channels that were advertised by these ads.

People also chose verbal transfer at markets and set off to scream and shout in order to grab customer attention. Some blankly yelled, while some listed their products’ qualities or some simply made conversation to influence. Before print, even the town crier was like our phone text alerts. It was their olden day radio, where the town criers moved around briefly announcing important or entertaining events and ironically belonging to the latter, hanging was a favorite. People came together in huge numbers to watch public hangings.


In accordance with Jame Wood’s Story of Advertising, the first known written ad in the history of advertising discovered by archaeologists – was the papyrus created in 3000 BC. The full transcript was on behalf of a slaveholder who was trying to find his slave while alongside advertising his brand –pharaonic times had their own methods of grabbing attention! The world’s first print and trademark mediums were identified in China, followed by the Gutenberg’s Press that made print more accessible. After that, throughout the world several pieces of printed ads became prevalent and by the 17th Century, printed advertising was very common. These ads were simply born out of necessities and people only put out job offers and trade.

Now by the 18th century, the Industrial Revolution set in and gave this sector, a much-needed boost. Ads now diverged into luxury and ranged from fashion accessories like hats, shoes, clothes to anything and everything that was now manufactured. From men pitching themselves for marriage and asking for a wife, to women looking for governesses to sex worker-hostels listing out their address details, these ads now were wide-spread across all sections, no boundaries!

Companies now began paying more attention to presentation and began hiring artists. Hence, enter – Ad Agencies. In 1704 John Campbell started to distribute the Boston News-Letter and the first advertising agency was founded by William Taylor in 1786. By mid-nineteenth century, America followed suit with the help of Robert Palmer whose father ran a newspaper, so he saved some space to advertise there and then sold that at higher rates to professional advertisers whose competition got fiercer year by year.


In the beginning of the 20th century, advertising was omnipresent, it established itself everywhere. On June 4, 1917, five regional industry groups and 111 charter members formed the American Association of Advertising Agencies, now called the 4A’s. Now advertising started to emerge as an extremely strong sector that was worth millions. This is when a new trend came in to challenge print, - Radio Waves. In 1922, the first paid radio ad was aired in the form of a podcast to combat the limitation on direct ads. This was the beginning of a type of advertising that picked up quickly and commercial radio stations became a standard in the early twentieth century. Another ground-breaking expansion was into Television. After World War II, TV became a more prominent source of advertising with its first ad being a video promoting the Bulavo watch.


Post the mid twentieth century began advertising in its truest sense, a period referred to as the ‘Golden Age of Advertising.’ Supremely talented personalities in this field like David Ogilvy, Mary Wells Lawrence and William Bernbach raised the stakes higher for each company and started creating ads that were out-of-the-box, genius and beyond creative and interesting to look at. This period revolutionised what ‘ads’ meant. They were no longer promotions we skipped but instead appealing compositions we connected too.


A quirky template with a loud rainbow font displayed a mysterious question on Wired magazine’s online HotWired platform. ‘Have you ever clicked your mouse here?’ With these exact words, began the trend of online banner ads that opened doors to the world of ‘online advertising.’ The ad enjoyed a 44% click-rate owing to the intrigued audience. Witnessing its success, like a Domino effect companies one after another started looking for pages with their target audience or core brand values while the pages started polishing their revenue streams by introducing the ‘pay per click method.’

Pop-ups, the extremely loathed way of advertising also saw a rise in numbers now. Before we throw shade at its poor execution, we should know that the intention behind it at the very least were to minimize distractions by not covering the entire page – well, they tried! However, as we discussed, their popularity was short lived and with growing online and social media opportunities more researched trends stole the spotlight.


Mid 2000s saw the metamorphosis of what we perceived as ‘content.’ Even though email advertising and Myspace accounts were available before the twentieth century, Facebook was the real deal when it came to viral online marketing. In 2006 Facebook sought to minimal advertising to build its company that was in its nascent stages. Compare this to Instagram today, where Kardashians earn millions with every post they put up and every third person we know is an online influencer! The rise of social media advertising however was not by luck or chance, it was baseline research of a well-calculated algorithm that combined the need for humans to interact, broke down walls between the brand and its customers and lastly also propagated the idea of more effective marketing within less costs-pretty foolproof.

Facebook was followed by Twitter in 2010, and then the ripple effect brought in LinkedIn, Instagram, Snapchat and TikTok. Facebook began to advertise not just for revenue, but because they were inspired by the idea of ‘targeting ads.’ Targeting ads is a phenomenon that works well even today. For instance, Facebook has witnessed a shift in its target audience recently and majority that is almost 73% of 30-49-year-olds are using this site compared to Instagram where the demographic is much younger, so when you wish to advertise for instance Justin Bieber’s merchandise, then the brand would keep this in mind and influence their audience via Instagram. By 2018, Instagram hit 1 billion monthly active users and has lately become the central hub for a younger audience as almost 70% of its users are under the age of 35. Thus, brands that cater to this base have increasingly started advertising on this platform.

It’s no secret that the world of advertising has transformed with the emergence of Social Media. It’s a chapter so extensive and fundamental to the advertising space, that it would soon have its own novel. Not only has Social media increased the number of channels to advertise but it has also transformed the way we have been conditioned to view advertising. No longer do we wait to skip through ads, but in fact more often so we are intrigued to stay and know more.

With techniques like using different appeals, societal themes, engaging storytelling, ads have come a long way from placing a product and paying an influential celebrity to mindlessly encourage the audience. Video ads have increasingly vast audience, even more than pictures. According to Hubspot’s Ultimate list of Marketing Statistics for 2020, video is the best form of media used in content marketing and the one that has the most potential for growth as 88% marketers received positive return on investments with video advertising. Video marketing is already a well-established 135-billion-dollar industry in the U.S. and is termed as focal point of growth in the advertising future.


With Social Media, innovation and creativity have become forerunners, leaving any overused old trick in the hat far behind. From printed ads, kitschy announcements and on the face advertising to elaborate conceptualizations, intent to bring societal change and use of every possible medium from sound to visual, advertising has built for itself an all-encompassing roadmap with a destination that remains intact- to persuade people like you and I. For something that evolves so constantly with time, there are no boundaries that can stop its growth for it gains strength from stakeholders’ innovation that in itself knows no limits, so it’s a never-ending loop. What’s in for the next decade for this medium? Well, I believe several cool new additions, exponential growth, some new instances of path-breaking advertising and more that you and I are ready all day with our gadgets to explore!

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23 nov 2021

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