The History Of Advertising

It’s hard to turn your head these days without being bombarded with some kind of advertisement. It’s practically inescapable with the amount of media we consume everyday, be it on the TV, Billboards, Magazines and Newspapers. We even have ‘cookies’ code that tracks your searches and personally curates ads to suit your needs and likes. When did we become such a consumerist culture? Surely we weren’t always like this, right?


Well it surprised me to learn that advertising can be traced all the way back to ancient times. Some examples are historians finding traces of it in Egypt on Papyrus paper to make sales messages and posters, in the ruins of Pompeii, as well as painted and carved into rocks in Ancient Greece and Rome. An alternative form of advertisement used in Ancient China was called ‘Classic of Poetry’ which was oral. People would play bamboo flues to try sell candy and other goods, sinning songs from the ‘Classic of Poetry’ songbook.

However its’s only as we get into the 19th Century that advertising starts to take off the way it has today. You started to see advertisements everywhere, in newspapers and stuck on walls around the city. The sheer number of paper advertisements began to increase due to the Industrial Revolution, as now there were more machines and people able to print more constantly, allowing them to be stuck all over the city. Brands also started to become tactile and clever, focusing on not just selling the goods, but creating a brand around it. One of the most famous early examples of this are the ads that the Pears Soap company made, the creator Thomas J. Barratt ,was hailed as the ‘father of modern advertising’ by T F G Coates in his book ‘Modern Advertising’ . He created an advertising campaign around the product which involved slogans, images, and phrases, the most famous being ‘ Good Morning. Have you used Pears Soap?’ which remained popular up until the 20th century. Barrett introduced many crucial ideas that have created the foundations of advertisements today. He stressed the importance of a strong exclusive images, as well as the products accessibility all over England, he understood the importance of constantly re-evaluating the market for changes and then adapting their campaign to suit them. “Tastes change, fashions change, and the adviser has to change with them” – (Matt Haig,) an idea that years ago would never been considered.


Although we can agree that the 19th Century help set the foundations for modern advertising, it is in the 20th century that it was revolutionised.  With new inventions such as the Radio, Television, and the Internet, advertising had to expand and adapt to be successful across a number of different mediums. The Invention of the Radio and Stations in the 1920s was an important invention in the role of advertisements as ads could be broadcasted into the homes of thousands of people everyday. Many Radio stations today still use ads as their primary source of income, but many stations such as the BBC, have never used commercials or advertising.


Both the First and Second World Wars gave the world some interesting campaigns, designed to create propaganda and motivation for the public. The most famous, that is still replicated today is ‘Uncle Sam’ who was enforced by the U.S Government to recruit troops for WW2. Since then he has been used to sell a range of products across America, becoming a national symbol for them as a Nation. Cartoons and Advertisements were also used during the wars to help promote morale and prevent the spread of information to the enemy, a famous slogan being ‘ loose lips, might sink ships’ and well as incredibly racist propaganda created to help promote the war and help the nation feel united against the enemy. Other campaigns were targeted at getting women to volunteer as well as urging people to not waste food.

There was a funny campaign around carrots in Britain during WW2. When the allies had discovered radar, a device that could help see the German bomber planes during the Blitz, they didn’t want the Germans to discover how they were suddenly able to target their planes. The British came up with the Campaign idea claiming that carrots help you to see in the dark, and this is how the British were able to see the German Bomber planes. The public had no idea this was a propaganda hoax and actually fully embraced the campaign, and began to believe that if you ate enough carrots you could get ‘night-vision’.


Scarily enough this type of advertisement  began to sneak into cartoons played on TV for young kids as well. Disney throughout the Second World War created propaganda films for the U.S government in an attempt to help increase support towards the war. Many of the films involved the famous Disney characters engaging in patriotic activities, as well as racist depictions Hitler, Mussolini, and Hirohito. A rather scary film I found online showed Donald Duck who had a nightmare that he was a Nazi. It showed what his everyday life would be like, from hard labour in a factory, to having to yell ‘Heil Hitler’ multiple times a day. At the end of the clip he wakes up, and rejoices that he doesn’t have to live the horrible life a Nazi would have to, rejoicing in the fact that he is an American. I find this particularly scary, that advertising and propaganda would be created to reach the minds of young children at the time, showing the extent of advertisement and propaganda throughout the world wars.

Advertisers face the challenge of making a product appeal to the public. In the 50’s and 60’s as more research began to pour into smoking and how it could affect your health, advertisers had to come up with new ways to keep the public wanting to buy their product despite these warnings. This gave way to one of the most famous advertising campaigns to date ‘Even my Doctor Smokes’. This one slogan convinced many people that smoking was still a healthy thing to do and help dampen the fear that began to rise around the health risks. This idea is even explored in the popular show Mad Men where the main character Don Draper works for a advertisement company who also sells slogans to cigarette companies.

With the rise of Television ads began to take a new form. For the first time they were able to have a small video to help between television shows to help promote their products. This introduced this storylines surrounding the products or certain actors or characters becoming the face of the product. They changed the way they were filmed to suit different demographics or audiences and strategically placed them at certain times in the day to target different people. I’m sure we can all agree today that ads on Tv just seem like a normal part of watching TV. With the Internet we now access thousands of ads every time we click on a link. ‘Cookies’ have even been invented to cater ads to us specifically and websites carefully situate dozens of ads around the articles you read. It feels inescapable!


Earlier this year I was lucky enough to go to New York for the first time with my family, and one thing that stuck me was the amount of advertising in Times Square. Coming from New Zealand I had never seen anything on this scale before and I was transfixed at the sheer size of it all. The advertisements are defiantly an integral part of the charm of Times Square, as it dominates it in a strange yet intriguing way. It was fascinating and just plain entertaining to watch new advertisements roll over every few seconds. With the amount of screens it felt like there was always something new to watch. This led me to think, is this the future of advertisements around the world? Advertising already feels like it’s taking over the world without hundreds of screens planted over buildings, and looking at history we can see that it has been apart of our society for a very long time. So is this the next logical step? I don’t know? All I know is that advertising is continuing to shape our societies in the ways we products and respond to media. It’s a fascinating phenomenon that many of us find pretty annoying, but can agree that is an everyday part of our lives.

So when we look back at the History of advertising I think we can agree that although we find it annoying, its had a pretty amazing history. I mean who would have thought it went back to ancient times? But in all seriousness advertisements are a very clever way of addressing and manipulating consumerism, and I think we should recognise more often the brilliance of this, even when it does trick you into buying something you don’t need.


Acunzo. J (2013, July 1)  The History of Advertising: How Consumers Won the War for their Attention. Retrieved from

Beautiful With Brain. (2016) Pears Soap Ad. Retrievd from

graficsfx. (2006, Novemeber 11) More Doctors Smoke Camels than any other Cigarette. Retrieved from

Income School. (2016) Times Square Advertisements. Retrievd from

Outdoor Advertising Association. (2016) McDonalds Billboard. Retrievd from

Smithsonion. (2016) Carrot Propaganda Poster. Retreievd from

Wikipedia. (2016) History of Advertising. Retrieved from

Wikipedia. (2016) Uncle Sam Poster. Retrieved from


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