A Brief History of Advertising

6 11 2008

Everything from people (slaves, escorts) to pets (dogs for sale, cows for butcher) to products has been advertised. I think it’s only fitting to discuss the history of advertising during a historic election year, when many are thinking back to what the forefathers hoped for the United States over two centuries ago.

Ever since Colonial America (about 1600 – 1775), people have been using advertising to get their goods out to others. Although, when advertising first started, it wasn’t exactly persuasive. It was more of an announcement of goods. But that didn’t last long, as people soon learned that dry descriptions of products weren’t going to get anyone to part with their hard earned money or goods for trade.

Benjamin Franklin’s Pennsylvania Gazette, which he purchased in 1729, was the first to use headlines, illustrations and ad placement next to editorial material.

Slaves were sold, and runaway slaves captured and rewarded, through ads. Check out Virginia Runaways for scans of slave ads from the 1700s. These ads have been studied by historians as a way to glimpse into the life of slaves and slave owners back then. Historians have been able to glean the health habits, skills and other characteristics of slaves, as well as learn tactics of resistance and escape slaves used. That’s pretty important stuff in the U.S. history that was made possible (or at least, made easier) to study by ads!

During the 18th and most of the 19th centuries, items were not yet mass produced, so ads weren’t quite as important as they were starting in the late 1880s. Before this time, ads were never wider than one column in newspapers, and they weren’t allowed to use illustrations or even different fonts to help them stand out. Magazines pushed all the ads to the back of the magazines so as not to take away from the editorial content. (I think that would be a nice element to bring back to magazines today!)

With large department stores like Macy’s and Sears Roebuck making more mass produced items, advertising grew, and the mail-order catalog appeared in the early 1900s. One popular statistic of the time states that total advertising volume in the United States grew from about $200 million in 1880 to nearly $3 billion in 1920.

Advertising agencies started growing and specializing at this time as well. Instead of just selling ad space, ad agencies started designing ads and writing copy for the big department stores.

Of course, the Great Depression slowed down advertising a bit, but some companies didn’t stop advertising during this slow time and emerged as stronger companies when the economy finally got back on its feet. This goes to show what companies need to do in present-day America – keep advertising!

Current advertising spending is more than 80 times what it was in the early 1900s. The 1960s brought about the concept of a targeted audience, which was made more possible than ever before with the emerging technology and cheaper printing methods. Not to mention that people’s views of what was right and what wasn’t were changing at the time – not everyone agreed on the Vietnam War, which signaled that all Americans weren’t the same. Now it was becoming okay to say as much, which gave way to more diverse audiences.

And obviously, the TV, Internet, cell phones and all the new technology emerging around us are now giving away to a whole new era in advertising.

There were many significant names and moments in advertising during the 20th century, but too many to mention here. This is a good place to start, and now you can go out and look for specifics so you can appreciate the art of advertising and marketing a bit more.

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