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A Brief History Of Advertising: From Franklin To Facebook

Advertising tells us more than what to buy; it tells us about ourselves, serving as a constant reflection of who and what we are (as seen in Photo 1). 

The Philadelphia Gazette was one of the earliest publications to print advertisements in North America. Started by Benjamin Franklin in 1729, the paper was popular in the colonies and ran advertisements for shipping services and imported dry goods (such as coffee, cocoa, sugar, and salt). Telling of the times, it also ran ads offering slaves for rent or purchase, and announced rewards for runaways.

Nearly 100 years later, in 1835, James Gordon Bennett founded the New York Herald and began charging more money for advertisements in order to lower the cost of the newspaper. In addition to ads for everything from tailors to toothache drops, he ran personals for the lonely (and literate).

Shortly thereafter, traveling salesmen took commerce and advertising into their own hands by giving persuasive pitches and demonstrations in the streets of small towns. Unaccountable and fast-moving, these peddlers were often con-men offering bogus "guarantees" on shoddy products, including patent medicines (a misnomer, since they weren't patented). Marking a low point for advertising's credibility, printed advertisements for medicinal tonics and elixirs containing "snake oil" and "swamp root" were often just bottled alcohol, morphine, opium, or cocaine. A backlash soon occurred in the form of a consumer movement seeking regulation, which resulted in the Pure Food and Drug Act in 1906.

Brand names were common by this time, and catchy slogans for them began to appear in the early 1900s. The advertising agent, once just a middle-man between the market and media, began offering copywriting services to generate “big ideas.” This rhetorical broadening coincided with the expansion of media from newspapers into radio. Ad agencies first drove the content in radio programs in the 1930s, such as “Colgate House Party” and “General Foods Cooking School.” As advertising became more sophisticated, psychologists were employed to help "scientifically" monitor the consumer mind.

In both the first and second world wars, advertising shifted towards promoting the war efforts as consumer spending slumped. Armed with mass media and insights of Freudian psychology, public opinion was shaped by messages from the War Advertising Council. (Now called the Advertising Council, this entity produces our public service announcements today.)

Commercial advertising was back on top with the advent of black and white television in the 1940s and color in the 1960s. Sales skyrocketed, allowing ad agencies to bill top dollar. Madison Avenue displayed more creativity than ever, resulting in groundbreaking campaigns like Volkswagen’s “honest car” in 1959.

In the 1970s, a U.S. recession shrank budgets, and marketing's focus turned global. The London-based Saatchi brothers began buying up agencies until, in 1986, they owned eighty worldwide. A global recession then forced a breakup of Saatchi & Saatchi, and smaller companies in cities such as Los Angeles or Miami became more adaptive and competitive.

Since the late 1990s, the internet has been a major advertising medium. Instead of broadcasting, it “narrowcasts,” which is to say it targets smaller, niche audiences. The sophisticated advertisers of today include Google and Facebook, which track user information so efficiently that they help advertisers reach audiences as small as a couple dozen people. (Those strangely apt advertisements lining the right side of your screen aren't reading your mind; they’re simply reflecting your interests and desires as you've revealed them.)

Indicative of who we have become as a society, advertising today is ultra-personalized and is likely to become even more targeted in the years ahead. Advertisers of the future will become increasingly adept at anticipating consumers’ desires, serving up the right messages at the right time, and keeping people pulling out their wallets.

Photo Courtesy of Rob Reed