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History of Advertising

Updated on February 15, 2015

Can You Say, "Cha-ching!"?

Today's advertising industry grosses billions of dollars yearly, both in the U.S. and worldwide. Make no mistake about it, the ad world is BIG business. A lot of larger companies involved in online advertising (think Google), as well as offline agencies and the like, are getting or have already gotten rich from other people's advertisements. Gotta love free enterprise.

Even we hubbers are involved in the promotion game, trying to ever increase our AdSense earnings while satisfying our urge to write. When fun and profit go together, it's a beautiful thing.

Though we may be on the cutting and trendy edge of technology today, advertising is far from young and modern.

Ancient Want Ad Written On Papyrus

Lost: Chariot, white with gold trim, gold spikes on wheels, toga and pointy helmet in back seat. Last seen outside of forum on gladiator's night. Reward of 2 goats for its safe return. Please send messenger to Ben Hur's house with any news.

Papyrus Ads

I'd be interested to know what the ROI was with these
I'd be interested to know what the ROI was with these

Ancient Advertising Roots

In fact, using messages to sway the public began long before the new world was even discovered.

Ancient Greeks and Romans used to advertise for their lost and found items on papyrus. I'm not sure what kind of items those might have been, perhaps they needed to locate their togas after the orgy or couldn't remember where they parked the chariot. It matters not. What's important here is that they were issuing advertisements long before today's internet advertising ever existed. We're going for history, here.

If you have a chance to rifle through the ruins in ancient Arabia or Pompeii, you'll find signs promoting politicians and commerce of the day. Somehow, it doesn't surprise me that political messages were among the first developed ads.

Okay, you thought those first two examples were old? Well, hang onto your hat because we're going back even farther in time.

A visit to South America, Asia or South Africa will afford you evidence of the very first advertisements of humankind. Wall paintings depicting sales and commerce messages still exist today. If you happen to visit those countries, it would probably be worth taking the time to see them yourself. Since the wall painting promotions are dated way back to 4000 BCE (Before the Common Era), I think it safe to say that they are the most durable billboards every made.

Descendant of the First Billboards

Even as far back as 4000 BCE, people were using wall paintings as endorsements
Even as far back as 4000 BCE, people were using wall paintings as endorsements

History of Advertising Time Line

4000 BCE - Wall paintings promoting commerce in South America, South Africa and Asia

Ancient A.D. - Papyrus ads in Pompeii, Egypt, Greece and Arabia

Middle Ages - Signage was born; vocal advertising

17th Century - Ads started appearing in handbills and newspapers

19th Century - Mail-order advertising became popular, along with paid advertising in newspapers; lead up to the birth of advertising agencies

1869 - First full-service ad agency is opened in Philadelphia

1920s - Sex in advertising got its start with the introduction of women being used in the photography of ad campaigns; radio advertising was born

1940s - Radio sponsorships serve as the template for television commercials

Signs of the Times

Business owners of the middle ages hung signs with images outside their shops for those who could not read
Business owners of the middle ages hung signs with images outside their shops for those who could not read

Now, We're Evolving

It was baby steps all through the infancy of advertising.

Eventually, history hit the middle ages and the earth's population naturally increased and spread out over a larger area. Back then, most folks could not read. Therefore, the shopkeepers began using signs with simple images to advertise their businesses. Ye old boot cobbler would have a sign illustrating a boot, the candlemaker would have a candle on his, and so forth. To further attract business, town criers were employed for open air markets. The criers' vocal advertising let the consumers know where to find the goods.

Jump ahead a few hundred years to the 17th century. Now, things are really starting to get modern. More people can read, print has been invented and new forms of advertising are being born.

Advertisements were being used in handbills and newspapers for the first time. Mainly they were used for the promotion of books and paper sales and they worked really well. As you may expect, it wasn't long before the "spammers" came along and infiltrated the industry. False advertising abounded and the regulation of ad content came into being.

Let's spring ahead 200 more years and into the 19th century. That brings us to the development of mail-order advertising. I imagine that it was big business for a time in history when most people never ventured more than a few miles from home. It probably opened up a whole new world to them. Since this is all supposition on my part, I may as well throw in that it probably took a long time to get the goods. Be that as it may, this was another step in the evolution of a billion plus dollar growth industry.

Another item in the 1800's to take note of is the introduction in France of paid advertising in newspapers. What a difference that has played to the ad makers and sellers since then.

The First Advertising Agency

The years of 1840 - 1869 were notable ones for the ad industry. Those were the years that led to the advertising agencies of today. Until N. W. Ayer and Son started up the first full service agency in Philadelphia in 1869, agents were really only brokers. They would find newspaper ad space for their clients. N. W. Ayer changed that by also taking on responsibility for the client's promotional content.

A Big Break for Us Gals

Women got their big break around the turn of the 20th century. Whereas educational and work opportunities had seldom extended to females, ladies were suddenly in high demand. They did the shopping and some even influenced their husbands. Women were an important target audience to advertisers, who recruited females for their product and ad photography.

It was the first time that sex was used to sell ads. For its time (early 1920s) the sex in advertising was probably subtle enough that we wouldn't even notice it was there. Back then though, suggesting that your skin was nice enough to touch was just this side of pornographic.

The Golden Age of Radio

Radio stations started gaining popularity and growth in the 1920's.  The ad spots were sponsored by one business per program.  It didn't take long for station owners to realize that they could make more money if they sold sponsorships in smaller chunks of time to multiple businesses.  Thus, radio advertising as we know it was born.

Enter the Televised Commercial

The sponsored radio broadcasts were the templates for the commercials that ran on television in the late 1940s and into the 50's and 60's.

As I recall, when I was a little girl, the commercials were about 30 seconds long. When you're 7 and waiting to see Topo Gigo, that's an eternity. They've gotten longer and closer together over the years. Nowadays, I swear the commercials take up half of the program time.

Speaking of Advertising....

That's All, Folks

I'm stopping the history here. Most everyone is familiar with the advertising agencies of the 50's and 60's (remember Bewitched?) and the media ads of the 70's to 90's. Of course, we now have online advertising in addition to that which we get on TV, radio and phone.

Personally, I think that I'd like to go back to the papyrus and wall paintings. It would make a nice change, even if just for a little while. Maybe then, I wouldn't feel overwhelmed with all of the advertising.

© 2009 Shirley Anderson


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    • jamesadvertising profile image

      James Rammal Advertising LLC Dubai UAE 

      3 years ago from Dubai


    • seanorjohn profile image


      7 years ago

      Fascinating. Never thought of the Ancient Greeks and Roman@s involvement in advertising. I too am not surprised that the politicians were amongst the first to get in on the act. Voted up and interesting.

    • CWanamaker profile image

      Christopher Wanamaker 

      8 years ago from Arizona

      Wow, advertising on Papyrus!? Now that's awesome.

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      What a terrific overview! I learned a lot. Thanks for posting it.

    • thindjinn profile image


      8 years ago from Lynchburg, Virginia

      That was great!! You should do a followup role play type exercise!! We did those in my Marketing class, but not quite the way I'm thinking. Imagine you are in any of those eras you described, and using only the tools available at that time, considering the amount of people that could read, construct the optimal advertisement for that era. Seeing the history laid out really makes me want to push our current marketing strategies forward and make my mark on history. :) Great read!!

    • Shirley Anderson profile imageAUTHOR

      Shirley Anderson 

      9 years ago from Ontario, Canada

      You're welcome, Bill. Thank-you for taking the time to read and comment.

    • Shirley Anderson profile imageAUTHOR

      Shirley Anderson 

      9 years ago from Ontario, Canada

      Thank-you so much, Multimastery!

    • profile image


      9 years ago

      Great history on advertising. It is truly timeless..

    • Shirley Anderson profile imageAUTHOR

      Shirley Anderson 

      9 years ago from Ontario, Canada

      Thank, Neil! I appreciate you saying so.

    • Neil Ashworth profile image

      George Poe 

      9 years ago from United Kingdom

      Great hub!!! Love it..

    • Shirley Anderson profile imageAUTHOR

      Shirley Anderson 

      10 years ago from Ontario, Canada

      Articler, I had to laugh at what you said about the birth of affiliate marketing, that was funny!

      Thanks for coming by to read and comment, I appreciate it.

    • articler profile image


      10 years ago

      This article points out the essentials of advertising.

      Back in the days, when ads were recommendations and were delivered by word of mouth. I remember, when I was a kid, older men were talking like:

      "And if you go to (e.g.) Jimmy, tell him Sam sends you.."

      Then later Sam got his next item a little cheaper from Jimmy of course. This had to be the beginning of affiliate advertising ;)

      Thanks Shirley!

    • Shirley Anderson profile imageAUTHOR

      Shirley Anderson 

      10 years ago from Ontario, Canada

      Thank-you, E.A. and PoolToy!

    • USAPoolToy profile image


      10 years ago from Florida

      Nice Hub!!


    • E. A. Wright profile image

      E. A. Wright 

      10 years ago from New York City


    • Shirley Anderson profile imageAUTHOR

      Shirley Anderson 

      10 years ago from Ontario, Canada

      Why thank-you so much, Mr. Watkins! :)

      This one was fun to write, although it is an abbreviated skip through the history. I personally had no idea that advertising was that old or maybe it's just that I didn't think of early wall paintings that way.

      I'm glad that you liked it. Thanks for coming by!

    • James A Watkins profile image

      James A Watkins 

      10 years ago from Chicago

      Fascinating work here Ms. Anderson. I enjoy history and you told the story well. Thank you for a fine, enlightening read.

    • Shirley Anderson profile imageAUTHOR

      Shirley Anderson 

      10 years ago from Ontario, Canada

      Hi, SCL. I agree with you, the whole 'behind the scenes' stuff is very interesting.

      Thank-you for coming by to read and taking the time to comment.

    • SCL profile image


      10 years ago from Bristol UK

      Really interesting hub - thanks :) I love the concepts behind advertising and the way that using different psychological methods work on different target audiences in different eras.


    • Shirley Anderson profile imageAUTHOR

      Shirley Anderson 

      10 years ago from Ontario, Canada

      Thanks, Shalini! I had to stop where I did or it would have been really long! Glad you liked Ben Hur's want ad. :) I'm surprised at just how many hubbers used to be in adverting. I guess with so many of us, it stands to reason, though. Thanks so much for your comment.

      Hi, Peggy. That sounds soooo quaint about the European business signs. Must be handy for travellers from other countries, too.

      You make a good point about the posters. I wonder how long a person needs to keep an ad before it becomes art? :) Probably longer than I have left.

      Thanks very much for dropping in and commenting, Peggy!

    • Peggy W profile image

      Peggy Woods 

      10 years ago from Houston, Texas

      In Europe they still have many signs above the doors that represent the business by way of an illustration. One need not be able to read to understand those more primitive (but pretty) forms of advertising.

      Think of all the art posters that are now collected as fine art! Most if not all started out as ads.

      Nice hub about the history of advertising, Shirley.

    • Shalini Kagal profile image

      Shalini Kagal 

      10 years ago from India

      That was such a great read Shirley! Took me back to my advertising days - love that papyrus ad!!

    • Shirley Anderson profile imageAUTHOR

      Shirley Anderson 

      10 years ago from Ontario, Canada

      Thanks, Jill! Yeah, I had to chuckle when I discovered that politicians were the first in history to put up a billboard. :) You're not kidding about the ad budgets, they're enormous with the bigger companies. I could live on Google's or IBM's budget for one campaign the rest of my life.

      Thanks so much for coming by!

    • jill of alltrades profile image

      jill of alltrades 

      10 years ago from Philippines

      Great historical hub!

      Yes, I'm also not surprised that politicians are one of the first to use advertising. Advertising is very powerful. Just look at how much budget in every company is allotted to advertising.

    • Shirley Anderson profile imageAUTHOR

      Shirley Anderson 

      10 years ago from Ontario, Canada

      Thanks, Irohner!

      I spent 20 years in the promotional products industry and like you said, the way that people promoted their business changed several times during those 2 decades.

      Re what the ad climate will be like twenty years from now, I can't even imagine what goes beyond where we are. Perhaps everything will go retro and we'll move backwards. We may just make it back to the wall paintings and papyrus. :) It would catch people's attention.

    • lrohner profile image


      10 years ago from USA

      I spent over 15 years in brand marketing, and saw advertising completely reshape itself several times during my tenure. Can't imagine what it will look like 20 years from now!

      Thanks for the history, Shirley. Truly enjoyable and informational read.

    • Shirley Anderson profile imageAUTHOR

      Shirley Anderson 

      10 years ago from Ontario, Canada

      Why, thank-you, Duchess! Normally, I would find this a rather dry topic but I have to confess that I really enjoyed doing it.

      Thanks so much for the kind words and the visit!

    • profile image

      Duchess OBlunt 

      10 years ago

      As a history buff, this was a great hub. I'm not much on the advertising or self promotion (yet) but it was a very interesting read. You managed to engage your reader while imparting some very interesting facts. Well done. I look forward to reading more of your hubs

    • Shirley Anderson profile imageAUTHOR

      Shirley Anderson 

      10 years ago from Ontario, Canada

      Hi, Laura. Your grandpa was part of advertising history, that's really cool! Maybe you could start a wall painting ad business and bring back a lost art. :) There are some pics around of the old ads but they have trademarked names and some are still bear a copyright so I thought it safer to not use them. It's a shame, they're very interesting.

      Shameless self promotion is all part of the ad game, you know. Thanks for visiting and sharing your interesting story with us!

      Chris, there is a lot of blood, sweat and tears used to develop and craft a good ad, I think. Anyone who is really good at it doesn't have to be without work, I'm sure.

      Yes, the article is a bit abridged. It was getting too long, so ended up being clipped highlights. I found this topic so interesting, though. It was fun to write. Perhaps, one day, I'll do each part separately, in more depth.

      Your toga is in Ben Hur's back seat. I'm sure that once he gets his chariot back, he'll send a messenger boy over with it.

      Thanks for coming by, Chris!

    • Christoph Reilly profile image

      Christoph Reilly 

      10 years ago from St. Louis

      I am a big fan of advertising, and think it often is art (though many will simply dismiss it in all cases as just junk in some kind of popular knee-jerk reaction.) Obvioulsly, no one likes being manipulated into purchasing something, but they don't call it "the art of persuasion" for nothing.

      A great pocket-book history of this ancient practice. Now, has anyone seen my toga?

    • Laura Spector profile image

      Laura Spector 

      10 years ago from Chiang Mai, Thailand

      As a painter, I hope they bring back those wall painting advertisements! My grandfather's first job off the ship at Ellis Island was as a sign painter for adverts. I have to say, I'm a sucker for vintage advertising - brown paper packages and the whole bit.

      That said - and since this 'is' a hub about advertising...I'll have to contribute and advertise on your advertising hub....:

      For anyone who happens to view this....Please visit and support the newbie writers: ...(I was nominated for "Town and Country in the Suburbs") and cast a vote! Thanks!!!

      That was an example of shameless contemporary advertisement. And, should help to exhibit current day trends in advertising. ;)

    • Shirley Anderson profile imageAUTHOR

      Shirley Anderson 

      10 years ago from Ontario, Canada

      Yes, I'm certain that you're right about that, RB. 

      What comes after AdSense?  I can't imagine but I agree that it will be interesting to see what the next step in ad evolution is.  Hard to believe that one day, many years from now, someone will write a history of advertising in the 21st century and all of the current internet advertising will be laughable in its crudety.

      Thanks for your visit, RB!

    • rb11 profile image


      10 years ago from Las Vegas

      Quite an enlightened evolution in the history of advertising. As long as there are goods to be sold I would imagine advertising will stand the test of time. It will be interesting to see what comes after adsense.


    • Shirley Anderson profile imageAUTHOR

      Shirley Anderson 

      10 years ago from Ontario, Canada

      Why, thank-you, Infantry Mom! That's so nice of you to say!

      Re the age of advertising, yes, it's even older than I am. :)

    • Army Infantry Mom profile image

      Army Infantry Mom 

      10 years ago

      Oh my, I had no idea ad's went that far back in time. Amazing the things I learn from your hubs - You are Fantastic !!! HOOAH

    • Shirley Anderson profile imageAUTHOR

      Shirley Anderson 

      10 years ago from Ontario, Canada

      Hehe, Dohn.  If you lived in the 50's, you'd be doing it the hard way using pen and paper and an old typewriter, then mailing it to a magazine.  Not nearly so much instant gratification. :)

      Good for you, promoting your hub so well!  Sounds like you're on your way to the top, Dohn!

      Thanks for coming by and reading my silly papyrus ad. :)

    • dohn121 profile image


      10 years ago from Hudson Valley, New York

      Hi, Shirley.  Thanks for the words of encouragement!  From last I heard, I'm neck to neck with the leader!  I gotta round up the troops and plan a coup d'etat!

      I enjoyed reading this hub, especially the Papyrus Ad.  Very funny.  If I could choose an era in which to live, it would probably be the 1950's.  Great cars, dirt cheap cost of living and so on...But what to do without HP?  Now that's a question!

    • Shirley Anderson profile imageAUTHOR

      Shirley Anderson 

      10 years ago from Ontario, Canada

      LOL, k@ri, no worries. I'm glad that you enjoyed this little trip back to 4000 BC, thanks so much for your comment!

      Thanks very much, Advisor! Sounds like you are the advertising agent of the future. :) Keep working towards it, you'll make it.

    • advisor4qb profile image


      10 years ago from On New Footing

      I love this hub! I am a big fan of history, and of advertising. I would love to work in advertising. I have composed my own ads and websites as well as those of some of my clients and friends, but I haven't yet made my way into the advertising field, other than hubbing. Maybe that's next for me!

    • k@ri profile image

      Kari Poulsen 

      10 years ago from Ohio

      Oopps, seems as if I hit enter one too many times....

    • k@ri profile image

      Kari Poulsen 

      10 years ago from Ohio

      Papyrus and wall paintings...could we go back? I really enjoyed this little jaunt into the world of advertising! :D


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