From steel inscriptions to digital ads: a brief history of advertising


Ads have become an inescapable part of our lives. From billboards on the roads and commercials on TV to the omnipotence of digital ads, we are encountered by advertisements during most of our waking hours. They ask us to buy things, to ‘like’ and ‘follow’ brands, to sign-up for ‘amazing offers’ and a lot, lot more; and they have been doing so for an unimaginably long while.

Though it was certainly bolstered by technological advancement, advertising has been around for many a millennium. It has evolved from inscriptions on metal sheets and words on papyrus to radio messages and television commercials to the modern-day digital advertising that we're all too familiar with. The history of advertising is varied and interesting, and here we trace its evolution since the first days of its inception.

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The birth of advertising

The first recorded evidence of advertising can be traced back to Egypt in 2000 BC, when public notices carved in steel were displayed outdoors. Papyrus succeeded metal as the common advertising medium with commercial, lost and found, and political campaign messages written on the material gaining popularity in ancient Grecian and Roman empires in addition to their Egyptian counterparts. In China, on the other hand, oral communication was the first medium used for advertising; songs and poems were used to promote the sale of products like candy. This was followed by posters printed on bronze and copper plates during the Song Dynasty (960 to 1279 AD).

The Middle Ages in Europe (500 to 1500 AD), during which the growing population on the continent was largely illiterate, galvanised image-based and sound-based advertising. Images of shoes, suits, and horse shoes were used to represent the trades of cobblers, tailors, and blacksmiths. Town criers, individuals who made public announcements, were also commonly deployed by business owners to inform customers of their locations.

The golden era

The dawn of the 18th century heralded the era of print advertising. The first newspaper ad appeared in an American newspaper in 1704 and in 1776, political ads encouraging enlistment in support of the American Revolution were widely circulated. Billboards soon followed in 1835, fuelled by the burgeoning automobile industry, and the first electric sign made an appearance at New York City's Time Square in 1882. A decade earlier, sexual imagery was used in advertising for the first time by Pearl Tobacco — a trend that has continued to prevail in modern times.

Meanwhile, advertising agencies began to emerge in the US, Great Britain, and France; just as companies like Kodak first began advertising their brands and not just their products. As the 20th century came around, these agencies had mastered the art of using copy to create effective advertisements and they were catering to clients from food, automobile, cosmetics, and tobacco industries. While automobile giants like General Motors and Ford were responsible for the globalisation of advertising as their ads began appearing in Asian, Latin American, and African countries, it is the tobacco industry that is hailed as the pioneer of modern advertising techniques.

In the 1920s, Radio became an important mass medium for disseminating information and entertainment and advertisers readily jumped onto the bandwagon. Soap companies, in particular, began advertising during radio dramas which were popular among women of the time — a tactic which coined the term ‘Soap Opera’. The 1940s once again turned the advertising industry on its head as televisions became the most popular medium for mass communication. TV commercials selling products and advertising contests and giveaways began airing with regularity.

The most drastic change to advertising in the 20th century, however, was brought about by the influence of psychology. Realising people's susceptibility to suggestions, psychologists began experimenting with more persuasive forms of advertising which formed the foundation for the strategies employed by the advertisers of today.

The internet catalysis

The internet, as it did for virtually every other sector, completely transformed advertising. Banner ads, pay-per-click (PPC) advertising, keyword ads, and mobile advertising came into existence during the early years of the World Wide Web. The ‘dot-com boom’ saw several companies operating solely on advertising revenue, and market confidence led to the investment of $8.2 billion in online ads — money that was lost in the spectacular dot-com crash at the turn of the 21st century.

In the October of 2000, Google released an online advertising service called AdWords, which changed the way ads worked on the internet. PPC, CPA (cost per acquisition), and CPM (cost per mile) advertising became mainstream and online targeted advertising was born. Over the course of the decade, as social media sites like YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook emerged, visual ads (in the form of videos and images) began gaining importance. Facebook, in particular, breathed new life into programmatic advertising as marketers could now target specific demographics with startling accuracy. Also, the purpose of advertising was no longer solely to sell a product, and buzzwords like brand awareness, credibility, and engagement were added to an advertiser's lexicon.

Digital advertising itself is expected to change concurrently with the evolution of new-age technologies like Internet of Things (IoT), Virtual and Augmented Reality (VR, AR), and Artificial Intelligence (AI).

Digital advertising spending has been steadily increasing since its inception; it rose from 6 percent of total global spend in 2005 to 30 percent in 2015. Television ads saw a slightly higher investment in 2016 but they are expected to be surpassed by digital ads in 2017. As the world becomes progressively digital, online advertising will soon become the dominant sector in this industry; and it will certainly retain the throne for some time to come.


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