History of print advertising

Print advertising has a long history that goes hand in hand with the social and economic developments of the ancient world up to the modern times. Its main function has always been to advertise something, whether that be a product, a business, or even a missing slave. As print advertising evolved, it became less text dominant and began to take on more and more visual elements with pictures and icons. Innovations in both printing technology and visual design have ensured print advertising’s staying power – even in the digital age.

Print advertising in the ancient world

The invention of writing remains one of the most important inventions throughout human history. It allowed for the ability to record ideas, events, transactions, and importantly for this topic, advertising. From the surviving literary and archaeological evidence, ancient print advertising could take different forms.

One of the earliest discovered instances of print advertising comes from Thebes in Egypt, a papyrus fragment dated around 3000BC. The advertisement in question was written on behalf of Hapu the weaver and slave owner who was trying to find one of his lost slaves. At the end of the notice, he added some self-promotion that is strikingly similar to what we still see in modern day advertising.

Ancient Egyptian advertising
Remains of papyrus written by Hapu the weaver looking for his missing slave (Softcube 2011).

The man-slave, Shem, having run away from his good master, Hapu the Weaver, all good citizens of Thebes are enjoyed to help return him. He is a Hittite, 5′ 2″ tall, of ruddy complexion and brown eyes. For news of his whereabouts half a gold coin is offered. And for his return to the shop of Hapu the Weaver, where the best cloth is woven to your desires, a whole gold coin is offered.

Translated by James Playsted Wood 1958 in The Story of Advertising

There is also evidence of graffiti being used as an early form of print advertising in ancient Rome. Graffiti was like a public message board where people would vent, troll, and advertise. The eruption of Vesuvius preserved many instances of graffiti in Pompeii that would have otherwise been lost. The most notable type of advertisements documented is that of political advertising, as seen in the below image.

graffiti in Pompeii
Ancient graffiti in Pompeii, in the style typical for a political campaign. (Mirko Tobias Schäfer / Flickr)

When looking at these ancient examples of print advertising, it’s important to also consider the broader social context in which they appear. The literacy rate in ancient civilisations was rarely above 10%, often reserved for state officials and those who were a part of the upper classes (Harris 1991). People who belonged to the lower classes, like peasants, farmers, artisans, and even slaves, rarely were able to read and write. If they could, it would presumably be the bare minimum for what was required for their profession. With that taken into consideration, these written advertisements (as they very rarely had any images or iconography) would have a limited reach.

The printing revolution of the middle ages

The issue of illiteracy was a pervasive one through the centuries. Limited access to books and other written materials made it difficult for anyone below the upper classes to learn how to read and write, and therefore limited the audience to target with print advertising (Jones & Tadajewski 2016). This was all to change with the invention and widespread use of the printing press.

Guttenberg Press
A recreation of the original Guttenberg press (Falco Ermert 2019, Flickr).

Before the printing press, all books, parchments, scroll, etc were hand written by scribes and were very time consuming to produce. As such books, and other hand written materials, were very expensive and not easily accessible to the regular citizen of the times. The printing press allowed for the mass production of books which lead to decreased production costs, making books widely available to the masses. This is most evident on the rise in literacy rates from the year the press was created in 1440 from 30% to 47% in just over 200 years (Rampage 2015). This increase in literacy rates among the lower classes created a wider market for print advertising (and the beginnings of the renaissance era in Europe).

This is an important innovation because before this, the best way for venders and merchants to advertise their services and wares was through word of mouth (and lots of yelling in market places). Only the people within earshot can hear the advertising, greatly limiting the pool of potential customers. The increase in literacy rates allowed for businesses and individuals to advertise beyond their immediate surroundings through print.

The industrial revolution and the growth of mass marketing

The industrial revolution saw the biggest growth in print marketing with the popularisation and mass production of newspapers and magazines. In 1605 the world’s first newspaper called Relation aller Fürnemmen und gedenckwürdigen Historien was issued by Johann Carolus in Strasbourg.

Worlds first newspaper
Title page of Relation aller Fürnemmen und gedenckwürdigen Historien from 1609 (History Stack 2015, Flickr).

From then onwards there as an explosion of new newspapers and magazines being published and distributed throughout the western world. The next major step for print advertising came in 1836 when a French journalist and politician called Émile de Girardin created Las Presse, the first newspaper that subsidised the price of printing using advertising (Softcube 2020). This step made the newspaper itself more affordable, and therefore more accessible to the general population, which increased the number of people who would see those advertisements. Due to this innovation advertising took on a more specialised role with the first advertising agency opening 5 years later in 1841 within the United States.

The rapid growth of print advertising in the industrial era saw a shift in advertising from local to national (McDonald & Scott 2007). This also worked in tandem with improved transportation methods, allowing for the transportation of goods to more people. With more options of products to buy from, branding started to become more and more important which was marketed to the masses through print advertising.

Print advertising throughout the 20th century

The 20th century is where print advertising underwent the most dramatic change in its long history. The inventions of the radio, television, and the internet, each brought with it a new challenge to the dominance of print advertising.

The pre-war era of advertising was very reminiscent of the ads from the late 1800s with a lot of text and little to no imagery. The focus was more to inform the customer about all the benefits that come from that product or service. In 1920 print advertising encountered its first major competitor, Radio. Unlike physical media like newspapers, radio could advertise across the whole country with great speed. It was truly the first national medium for mass marketing. It is during this time that we see images beginning to play a larger role in print advertising and designers starting to use negative space more efficiently. Print advertising after all was very visual and while walls of text could easily be read out over the radio, images could not be seen.

It was in 1939 that print advertising would encounter its next challenger, the home television set. Unlike the radio, they no longer had the advantage of being a visual medium. The first television advertisement aired in 1941 and quickly propelled television to being one of the most accessible advertising mediums of the times. Print for its part evolved to depend more heavily on imagery (especially coloured imagery), and some advertisements even removed the small black copy all together. During the 1950s, the layouts of print advertising started to get very experimental. The innovations from these experiments laid the foundation for design in advertising that still hold up today.

From the 60s to the 80s advertising went through what is often referred to as the golden age of advertising. The creative revolution that relied more on big ideas and started to incorporate psychology and targeted research into the ad creations. Print advertisements reflected this momentum in their bold use of space, colour, and more abstract ideas to market their products and services.

print advertisement - Volkswagen 1060
Print advertisement for Volkswagen 1960.

The 80s and 90s saw a shift to a more simplistic and minimalist style of print advertising that we often associate with advertising today. This more modernistic approach also evolved with the widespread adoption of print advertising’s final challenger for the 20th century, the internet.

The internet had been around since the 80s but it was in the 90s when it started to gain momentum. The first digital banner ad was launched in 1994 by HotWired and paved the way for other internet advertising methods such as to the infamous pop-up ads that plagued internet users for the better part of 2 decades. Print’s main advantage over the internet at this time (and television) was the fact that it was portable outside the home. A desktop computer and television set required electricity and were far too heavy to be lugging around with you every day.  Due to this, print advertising towards the end of the 20th century still had a clear purpose in the advertising campaigns of the time.

The survival of print advertising in the digital age

Radio couldn’t kill print, neither could television nor the internet. But together, in a little portable device called the smart phone, they were able to finally take away the last advantage that print had over them, its portability. From the mid to late 2000s the rise in smart phone devices brought all the knowledge and accessibility of the internet into the pockets of its users. Newspapers and magazines can now be read online, social media helped people connect like never before, and companies have been ditching the paper reports in favour of going digital.

print advertising

It’s naive to say that there has been no negative impact from the rise of the internet and smart phones, but it’s also ignorant to discount print advertising no longer being a viable source of advertising. For all the advances in technology, print is still the only way in which a consumer can physically interact with advertising. They can feel the texture of the paper, smell it, tear it, fold it and eat it if they really want to (but highly not recommended). In an almost ironic twist of fate, it is also easier to read blocks of text on print advertising compared to on a phone or computer. Print advertising has definitely taken a more supportive role in advertising campaigns, but its ability to interact with consumers is still as important as ever.

For a more detailed explanation of print advertising versus digital advertising check out our article on the topic.

Final thoughts about the evolution of print advertising

Print is here to stay. Its various forms and mediums evolved many times since the dawn of written history, but its purpose has remained the same. We may no longer write on papyrus, but even in todays digital age we use print advertising to market ideas, products, and services to consumers. While we can’t know what future technologies and innovations will bring to the advertising table, we can be sure that print advertising will be there, as stubbornly as always.

Sources

Evans M. (2017), The History of Print Advertising. Theclassroom.com, Sourced from: https://www.theclassroom.com/history-of-newspaper-ads-13636202.html

Jones B., Tadajewski M. (2016) The Routledge Companion to Marketing History. Taylor & Francis.

Harris W. (1991), Ancient Literacy. Harvard University Press.

McDonald C. & Scott J. (2007). A Brief History of Advertising, From ‘The SAGE Handbook of Advertising’ SAGE Publications.

Rampages.us (2015), How the Printing Press Changed the World. Sourced from: https://rampages.us/griffinpowers/2015/04/14/how-the-printing-press-changed-the-world/

Softcube.com (2020), The Entire History of Advertising. Sourced from: https://softcube.com/the-entire-history-of-advertising/

Wood J. P. (1958), The Story of Advertising. Ronald Press Company. Sourced from: https://books.google.com.ua/books?redir_esc=y&id=SQA0AAAAIAAJ&focus=searchwithinvolume&q=thebes

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