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History of Advertising

Updated on January 21, 2011

Ancient civilizations had no power machinery. They relied on primitive hand tools to produce their goods. With this slow, laborious method they could produce only the bare necessities of life for the general public. Only the upper classes enjoyed whatever comforts and luxuries were possible. Since there was no surplus of goods produced in ancient times, the employment of advertising to help sell merchandise was not necessary.

Nevertheless, advertising had some elementary beginnings thousands of years ago. In ancient Egypt, for example, reward posters were used to encourage the capture of runaway slaves. One such poster, found in the ruins of Thebes and now preserved in the British Museum, gives details of the reward offer on a sheet of papyrus. This primitive advertisement, made 3,000 years ago, was similar in purpose to the handbills and posters that were used to help track down criminals in the early American West.

Another example of ancient advertising is the use of barkers and criers. Men with pleasing voices were hired by shopkeepers and importers of merchandise to walk through the streets of a town and shout or sing sales messages. The radio and television announcer is a modern version of the old-time crier.

Ancient Greek and Roman merchants also used wall and shop signs for advertising purposes. Since most of the population was illiterate, the signs usually consisted of a picture of the goods for sale. Such simple advertising practices remained in use for centuries. After printing was invented in the mid-15th century, handbills were sometimes used for advertising purposes. However, there was still little advance in the methods of producing material goods. There were generally no surplus products requiring new selling methods.

Perhaps the most important event in history for advertising was the printing of the Gutenberg Bible, about 1450 to 1455- the first time that Western man used the principle of movable type.

In about 1477 in London, the first printed advertisement in English announced a prayerbook sale. The first newspaper adyertisement appeared on the back page of a London newspaper in 1625. The early town crier was also a "medium" of advertising.

It was not until 1704 that paid advertisements were printed in the United States. Later, Benjamin Franklin made advertisements more readable by using large headlines and by surrounding the advertisements with considerable white space. By 1771 there were 31 newspapers in the colonies, and all carried advertising.

The development of a national transportation system during the last half of the 19th century increased the number of readers who could be reached and led to expansion in newspaper and magazine circulation.

The Industrial Revolution brought about an enormous increase in man's ability to produce material goods. For the first time in history it became possible to manufacture both necessities and luxuries in large quantities. This great increase in production made it necessary to find new customers and new methods of selling goods. The traditional ways of doing business were no longer adequate. For example, in the old days a shoemaker took orders from individual customers living in his vicinity. He had only simple tools, and he made the shoes himself or with the aid of an apprentice. Thousands of pairs of shoes can now be manufactured in a day. If the factories are to be kept in operation, these shoes must be sold almost as fast as they are made.

The revolutionary shift from hand tools to power machinery thus caused another revolutionary change. Industry could no longer depend on the small number of well-to-do people to buy all the products being made. Additional customers had to be found. The only place to look for them was among the general population, who had always been doomed to poverty by limited production. Modern advertising was developed to help industry solve this problem of distributing its products throughout the population.

Modern advertising was made possible by a combination of changes in the social situation. During the period of industrialization there was a great increase in the number of people in the world, the number of people able to read, travel and shipping facilities and means of communication, and the number, size, and circulation of popular newspapers and magazines. Inventions such as the rotary press, the linotype machine, and radio and television were especially important to the growth of advertising.

The growing population provided a market for the products of modern machinery and, hence, the opportunity for large-scale advertising. A large reading public provided an audience able to understand advertising messages. Improved travel and shipping facilities made it possible to speed up the selling and transportation of goods, thus making it practical to do widespread advertising. Finally, the advances of technology and the increasing number of large-circulation publications provided media by which advertising messages could reach many people at once.

At present, advertising is a significant factor in the economy of free-enterprise countries. The United States leads the world in volume of advertising and in amount of money spent for advertising purposes. By the mid-1970's the estimated yearly expenditure for national and local advertising in the United States was about 25 billion dollars, and indications were that it was increasing in proportion to the growth of the economy as a whole.

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