Advertising through the ages: before the internet

A classic poster advertising the Post Office, UK.. Image shot 06/2008. Exact date unknown.
Stephen Sykes / Alamy Stock Photo

Uncover the roots of commercial advertising and the ads that set the precedent for future generations. We’re looking back at life before the Internet (yes, it did exist!) and the methods, motives and marketing practices brands employed to promote their products.

Where did it all begin?

There’s evidence that advertising existed as long ago as 3000bc in the time of the Ancient Egyptians.  The first advertising ‘slogan’ was discovered on an Egyptian papyrus in the town of Thebes. ‘The papyrus of slave Shem’ was an advertisement from a fabrics seller called Hapu, promising a reward for anyone who could return Shem, an escaped slave, to his store. Being a strong-minded businessman, he also took the opportunity to let everyone know that his store is where the most beautiful fabrics are woven.


I know you’re wondering… No, Shem was never caught. But Hapu did manage to grow his business because of the increased footfall his shop received!

Jumping forwards a few thousand years…

Printed adverts

Things had moved on a little from papyrus by the 1400s, and it was in 1472 that the first ever printed advertisement appeared in England. The ‘advert’ was a handbill announcing a prayer book.

William Caxton's Advertisement at Westminster - first English printer, Early printing. C 1422 - 1491. Printing. Bodleian
Lebrecht Music and Arts Photo Library / Alamy Stock Photo

Through the 1600s, a number of personal ‘promotions’ and news items were printed but it wasn’t until 1704 that sources agree an actual newspaper advert came into existence. The advertisement first appeared in American newspaper ‘The Boston News-Letter’, and was an announcement seeking a buyer for an Oyster Bay, Long Island, estate.

In 1742, Benjamin Franklin’s ‘General Magazine’ was responsible for a more professional approach to advertising. As the first known US magazine, Franklin used his abilities as a copywriter to persuade retailers and business to advertise their products in his monthly magazine.

FRANKLIN: GENERAL MAGAZINE. /nTitle page of the first issue of 'The General Magazine and Historical Chronicle,' published by Benjamin Franklin, January 1741.
Granger Historical Picture Archive / Alamy Stock Photo

Over the years, printed advertisements transitioned from purely written adverts into the image-led advertisements we see today. Companies gradually began to introduce things like illustrations and drawings, colours and photographs as they tried to make their adverts become more appealing to the customer.

Some advertising milestones…

In 1911, the world of printed advertising took a step in a new direction as the Woodbury Soap Company became the first company ever to use images of a sexual nature. The advert came equipped with the slogan “a skin you love to touch” as the company took a new approach to promoting its facial soap.

Here’s an example of a Woodbury advert from 1916:

AMERICAN SOAP ADVERTISEMENT in September 1916. Woodbury's Facial Soap advert in the American magazine Ladies Home Journal. Image shot 1916. Exact date unknown.
Pictorial Press Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo

Print media played an essential part in both World War I and World War II as it was used to communicate propaganda messages. One of the most famous uses during war times was the use of posters that encouraged people to enlist to the army, for example:

Soldier Blowing Bugle, "Fall in, Answer Now in Your Country's Hour of Need", World War I Recruitment Poster, United Kingdom, 1915
Glasshouse Images / Alamy Stock Photo

From the 1950s, we saw the emergence of ‘characters’ being built around products in an attempt to establish a connection between the audience and the product. Additionally, famous people began to be used in product promotions, and there was a huge emphasis on giving people a sense of aspiration. Adverts were designed to give people a sense of desire to obtain the product in the advert, be it a cigarette or a bowl of Frosties.

One of the most stand-out campaigns of all time was the creation of the ‘Marlborough man’ – although please don’t forget about Tony the Tiger, who remains embedded in my head to this day!

Marlboro man cigarettes magazine advert 1970s
geogphotos / Alamy Stock Photo

It was really from this point that TV advertising began to dominate the advertising world, although print continues to be a powerful tool for advertisers to this day in both magazines and newspapers.

TV adverts

As technology advanced, the advertising world became exposed to a whole new channel for advertising: the television.

The world’s first ever TV ad was aired in the US in1941, at a time when just 7,500 TV sets were in existence! The advert was from Bulova watches and lasted a whopping 9 seconds! “America runs on Bulova time!”

The UK was a few years behind the US, with the first ever advert airing in the UK in 1955. The ad lasted over 1 minute and featured video content complete with a voiceover that took its time describing the benefits of Unilever’s Gibbs S.R. toothpaste.

It’s a stark contrast to the TV ads we see today – it’s slow-paced, descriptive and the product (in this case the toothpaste) is the sole focus of the advert.

At this time, the sole purpose of advertisements was quite simple “to sell”. There was no desire to connect or build a relationship with the customer, and companies were much more detached from their audiences than we are today.

Over time, as communication has enhanced due to technology advances and emotional intelligence has improved, brands have discovered the value of listening to customer demand. In turn, the motives and goals for advertising campaigns have transitioned and both brands and customers are looking for more than just a product.

And this leads us on to the next part of this blog: ‘An emotional approach to advertising’ which you’ll find on our blog homepage on Friday 27th October.

See more from our Advertising through the ages series here.


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