From ancient Egypt’s papyrus scrolls to the TikTok ads we see today, the history of advertising is as long and varied as the products and services that have been advertised.
Some of the earliest known examples of advertising are found in China, where wall posters were used to advertise everything from tea to footbinding.
In ancient Greece and Rome, tavern owners hung signs advertising their wares, and in medieval Europe, towns were filled with signs advertising inns, blacksmiths and other businesses.
All the major advertising mediums that we use today have their roots in older, more traditional forms of advertising.
Now, advertising is more ubiquitous than ever, with companies spending billions of dollars each year to reach consumers through TV, radio, print, digital, and outdoor advertising.
And while the world of advertising has changed dramatically over the years, one thing remains the same: the goal of advertising is to sell products and services to consumers.
In this article, we will time travel through advertising history— from ads in the 1800s, 1900s advertisements and even more modern ads today and explore some of the most iconic advertisers that paved the way for the industry as we know it today.
Who Really Started Advertising?
Although the record of the first written ad can be traced as far back as the Egyptians, the term “advertising” was coined from a pamphlet published in Venice in 1566 by Andrea Alciato.
However, advertising history as we know it today didn’t start to take off until the late 19th century with the advent of new technologies like mass printing and photography. Not long after that, advertising became a full-fledged industry in its own right.
In its early days, the purpose of advertising was mostly to promote things like books, medicines and other products that were sold directly to consumers. But as businesses started to sell more and more products and services, they began using advertising to reach a wider audience.
By the early 20th century, advertising had become an important part of the American economy. And it has only grown in importance since then. Today, modern advertising is a multi-billion dollar industry that touches nearly every aspect of our lives.
So who really started advertising? It’s hard to say for sure. But we do know that advertising has been around for centuries. And it’s only going to become more and more prevalent in the years to come.
What Was the Very First Advertisement?
As we mentioned, the Egyptians were the first to use advertising, way back in 2000 BCE.
This form of advertising took the form of papyrus scrolls that were posted in public places like temples, containing information about goods and services that were available, as well as prices.
But in regards to digital advertising, we’ll share with you the first historical advertisements that were ever made through video, radio, and online platforms.
Radio ad – WEAF
The first radio advertising spot aired on August 28, 1922 on station WEAF in New York City. The advertising campaign was for the Queensboro Realty Company and advertised apartments for rent in the Queensboro area of New York City.
The advertisement aired during a broadcast of a Harvard-Yale football game. This particular broadcast was picked for the advertising spot because it was believed that potential renters would be interested in the game and would be more likely to remember the advertisement.
The Queensboro Realty Company was so pleased with the results of the ad that they continued to air spots on WEAF throughout the year. In fact, radio advertising became so popular that by 1926, nearly 60 percent of all advertising revenue in the United States came from radio ads.
This historic moment marked the beginning of a new era in advertising, as businesses could now reach a mass audience with their message via the airwaves. Radio advertising quickly became popular, and by 1925 over 5,000 commercial radio stations were broadcasting across the United States.
Radio advertising continued to grow in popularity throughout the years and is still used today as a popular advertising medium. It is estimated that over $17 billion is spent on radio advertising each year in the United States alone.
Video ad – Bulova
In 1941, Bulova aired the first television commercial in America. The ad featured a simple, yet powerful message: “America runs on Bulova time.” The commercial was an instant success and helped to establish Bulova as a household name.
The company was founded in 1875 by Joseph Bulova, and it wasn’t long before they were making a name for themselves in the world of advertising. One of their first big advertising campaigns was in 1926 when they ran a series of ads in the New York Times that featured a picture of the world’s tallest building at the time, the Empire State Building.
The ads were so successful that they helped put Bulova on the map as one of the leading watch brands in the world. Today, Bulova is still known for its innovative advertising campaigns.
The company has produced commercials that feature some of the most iconic figures in American history, including John F. Kennedy and Muhammad Ali. Bulova’s advertising has helped to shape the way we think about time, and its products are some of the most sought-after in the world.
Online ad – AT&T
It is widely accepted that the first online ad was placed in 1994 by AT&T on HotWired.com, which was then a popular website for tech-savvy individuals.
The ad was a simple banner that read “Have you ever clicked your mouse right here?” with a button that said, “You will.” When clicked, the button took users to a page that offered more information on AT&T’s long-distance services.
While this ad may seem primitive by today’s standards, it was a groundbreaking moment in advertising history. It proved that advertising could be effective on the internet, and opened the door for the billions of online ads that are now served every day.
AT&T was not the only company to experiment with online advertising in the early days of the internet. In 1996, Microsoft launched its own advertising platform, called MSN AdCenter. This platform allowed advertisers to place text-based ads on Microsoft’s popular MSN portal.
Famous People in Advertising History
Advertising history is full of famous people who have made a significant impact on the industry. Here are just a few of the most famous names in advertising history.
Johannes Gutenberg is considered by many to be the “Father of Advertising.” He invented the printing press in the 15th century, which made it possible to mass-produce printed materials.
This was a major breakthrough for advertising, as it allowed businesses to reach a much wider audience with their messages.
Gutenberg’s invention had a profound impact on advertising and society as a whole. It ushered in a new era of mass communication and helped to spread ideas and information more quickly and efficiently than ever before.
Advertising became an important tool for businesses to promote their products and services, and it continues to play a vital role in today’s economy.
Phineas Taylor Barnum
Phineas Taylor Barnum (1810-1891) was an American showman, businessman and politician who founded the Barnum & Bailey Circus.
He is also known for popularizing the phrase “the Greatest Show on Earth.” Born in Bethel, Connecticut, Barnum began his career as a showman in 1835, when he purchased Scudder’s American Museum in New York City. The museum featured curiosities, scientific oddities, and wax figures.
In 1841, Barnum partnered with James Anthony Bailey to create “The Greatest Show on Earth,” which toured the United States and Europe. The circus featured acrobats, animals, clowns, and other performers. In 1888, Barnum merged his circus with Bailey’s, creating the “Barnum & Bailey Circus.”
Mary Wells Lawrence
Mary Wells Lawrence, born in 1928 is one of the most important people in advertising history. She was the first female advertising executive and played a major role in shaping advertising as we know it today.
Lawrence got her start in advertising when she was just out of college. She landed a job at J. Walter Thompson, one of the largest advertising agencies at the time. There, she worked on accounts for some of the biggest names in business, including Procter & Gamble and General Foods.
In 1966, Lawrence left J. Walter Thompson to start her own advertising agency, Wells Rich Greene. The agency quickly made a name for itself with its creative and innovative approach to advertising. Some of its most famous campaigns included the “I Love New York” tourism campaign and the “Plop, plop, fizz, fizz, oh what a relief it is” jingle for Alka-Seltzer.
David Ogilvy (1911-1999) was a British-born advertising executive who, like Gutenberg is often referred to as the “Father of Advertising.”
He is credited with helping to create some of the most iconic and successful advertising campaigns in history. His advertising agency, Ogilvy & Mather, is one of the largest and most successful in the world.
Ogilvy’s advertising philosophy was based on the belief that advertising should be creative and persuasive, but also honest and informative. He believed that ads should be designed to appeal to the intellect as well as emotions.
Ogilvy’s campaigns were often controversial and pushed the boundaries of what was acceptable at the time. However, his techniques proved to be highly effective and his campaigns are still studied and used by advertising professionals today.
Ethan Zuckerman, born in 1973, is an advertising executive, best known for his work with the advertising company, Crispin Porter + Bogusky.
Some of Zuckerman’s most famous campaigns include the Truth advertising campaign against smoking and the Burger King “Subservient Chicken” campaign.
Zuckerman has also been involved in several controversies, such as the use of sex in advertising, and the manipulation of user data by advertising companies.
Despite these controversies, Zuckerman is considered one of the most successful advertising executives of his generation due to his creativity and the way he took risks with his campaigns.
Much like her name, Tiger Savage is a fierce leading female in the world of advertising today. She was born in 1968 and became an advertising creative director responsible for the global advertising campaigns of many major brands.
Her work has been recognized by some of the most prestigious advertising awards shows, including the Cannes Lions, Clio Awards and The One Show.
Born in France, Savage moved to New York City in her twenties to pursue a career in advertising. She began her career as an art director at Saatchi & Saatchi, where she worked on campaigns for Toyota, Procter & Gamble and Pepsi. She later became a creative director at Ogilvy & Mather, where she oversaw campaigns for IBM, American Express, and Mattel.
Savage is currently the Chief Creative Officer at TBWA\Chiat\Day New York. Under her leadership, the agency has created award-winning campaigns for Apple, Nissan, Gatorade and Absolut.
Timeline of Online Advertising
1970s – 1980s
The first online advertisements are created and are primarily used for commercial purposes, such as advertising products and services. These ads are usually text-based and static, with little to no visuals and did not allow for interactivity or animation.
In 1971, one of the most prevalent ads airs called “I’d like to buy the world a Coke” and is considered one of the first global advertising campaigns.
By the late 1970s, online advertising starts to take off as more businesses begin to see the potential of advertising to a wider audience via the internet.
In the 80s, online advertising grows more sophisticated with the introduction of graphics and animation. This allows businesses to better capture the attention of users and convey their message more effectively.
1990s – 2000s
The advertising industry begins to move online as new technologies emerge. The first banner ad appears on HotWired.com in 1994, and the first text ad appears on Craigslist in 1995. In 1996, Google launches its first advertising program, AdWords.
With website usage becoming more of a commodity, pop-up ads also become popular and are used extensively by advertising companies. This causes many internet users to install pop-up blockers.
Google AdWords is introduced, changing the landscape of online advertising and companies like Prodigy, HotWired and Global Network Navigator start offering advertising on their sites.
By the end of the 90s, a new form of advertising known as “banner ad blindness” emerges where users begin to ignore banner ads that are placed on websites.
This leads to marketers finding new ways to reach their target audiences, such as through search engine marketing (SEM) and search engine optimization (SEO).
2000s – 2010s
The advertising industry continues to grow and evolve with the rise of digital media. Some of the most popular online advertising formats include banner ads, rich media ads and video ads.
Websites like AOL, Microsoft, Yahoo!, Google, Facebook begin to emerge as advertising powerhouses. They allow for targeted advertising based on user data and browsing habits.
Social media advertising becomes popular with the rise of platforms such as Facebook and Twitter. Advertisers can target users based on interests, demographics and even location.
This era of advertising is marked by the rise of data-driven marketing. Advertisers can now collect vast amounts of data on users to better target their advertising.
2020 – present
The advertising industry is in a state of change and flux. Online advertising is becoming more sophisticated, with new technologies and platforms emerging all the time.
These new technologies consist of things like programmatic advertising, native advertising and big data. The industry is also starting to see consolidation, with the major players in online advertising becoming increasingly dominant. This is resulting in a more complex and opaque ecosystem, which is challenging for marketers and advertisers alike.
At the same time, traditional advertising formats like TV, radio, and print are more important than ever to companies as the digital space becomes more and more cluttered, regulated, and expensive. . This means that digital advertising agencies and marketers cannot expect to retain 100% of the advertising budget as traditional formats and principles see a renossance. Marketers need to be constantly on the lookout for new trends and developments to keep ahead of the curve.
Social media channels such as Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn have also become major advertising platforms in recent years. And with the rise of mobile devices, advertising is increasingly being delivered to consumers through apps and other mobile channels.
So what’s the takeaway from all of this? Advertising history is fascinating, and it reflects the state of technological advancement at the time. The one thing that remains the same, is the psychology of people. Advertisers have had thousands of years of tests and experiments to figure out what makes people buy. It’s these principles that allow us to appeal to the hearts and minds of your audiance, not the media or technology you choose to use.
“It’s the message that makes the media work, not the media that makes the message work.”
– Roy H. Williams
It also shows how we’ve evolved as a culture and how advertising has shaped that evolution. But most importantly, if you want to make advertising history with your ads, it certainly helps to know who’s paved the way to get us to where we are today.
At Wizard of Ads™, we can help you make your ads as legendary as the pioneers we mentioned in this article.
Our team knows how to target any market to get the leads you need to scale your business faster than ever before.
Contact us today and let us show you what we can do!