This is part one of a four part series we’re doing about advertising.

This week we will cover the history of advertising– from its origins to the present day.

Advertising is something that has been around for centuries, and we encounter some form of it every day. We’re engulfed by advertisements! From billboards, to commercials, and pop-up ads beamed right into our heads with the not-so-subtle message of, “Look at this! You need this… buy this.” In fact, ad saturation has become so severe that the average American can see up to 5,000 different ads per day! The reason why this number seems so shocking is because we filter out the vast majority of ads, like we do white noise.

It begs the question, how did we reach this place of ad saturation?

To understand the history of advertisement, we must first understand how deeply advertisement is connected to technology. The exponential technological progress throughout history has enabled advertising methods and effectiveness to progress alongside it. The earliest forms of advertisement were delivered orally and by the written word, through messages inscribed in stone, or written on papyrus. The reach of these mediums was limited, as they required direct contact with the audience. However, over the course of time technology has made advertising so potent, that nowadays we have algorithms that process everything we look at online– to give us interest-based ads based on our browsing habits. No direct contact is necessary (as in the olden days), and an ad can reach millions of people a day. Nobody knows what the first real ad was because advertisements date too far back in human history. While the history of advertising is patchy, many major developments have been documented.

The first print based ads didn’t appear until the eighteenth century, but the earliest documented examples of advertising date as far back as 2500 BC in Ancient Egypt. During this time, Egyptians would use papyrus wall posters for notices and sales messages, and carve advertisements in stone promoting marketplaces and bathhouses so that people would be able to find their locations easily. The next large documented development in advertising is found in Ancient China, around 1100 – 700 BC through a form of oral advertisement where flute players would play to gather people’s attention to sell them candy.

Practices like these continued, and began to evolve during the time of Ancient Rome in 100 BC– when political smear campaigns became popular through the use of political posters. In 80 AD, Pompeii is documented as being the first to use billboards, with message-riddled boards appearing all over the city. During the Middle Ages, shops such as bakeries, or shoemakers would have signs with pictures depicting bread, or shoes outside of their establishments. This was due to the general illiteracy of the population. Due to most people being unable to read at this time, the only way that common folk could get the most recent news was through town criers or “bellman,” most commonly known by predicating each bit of news with the famous phrase, “Hear Ye! Hear Ye!”

Though these advertising methods were effective for their time, they were all tailored to reaching people in nearby vicinities. It wasn’t until 1440 AD, with Johannes Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press, that advertisers finally had a medium to reach mass audiences. However, this potential wasn’t realized until April of 1704 when the first newspaper ad of all time was printed in the Boston Newsletter—which was an advertisement for a loft in New York.

This brings us to the twentieth century, when technology truly began to shape advertising into what we have today. Automobiles had been created leading to billboards on the streets, the first electric sign in Time Square was lit, and print ads were commonplace. Early into the twentieth century, radio ads began soaring through the air, and TV ads soon followed. As advertisements became part of pop culture, it also became more competitive; demonstrated clearly by the “soda wars” between Coke and Pepsi in the 70s. The internet was born in 1990, and it wasn’t long until pop-up ads started appearing on screens across the country by 1995. Soon YouTube would start showing ads in their videos in 2006, and in 2008, ads even began appearing in smartphone apps.

The true scope of advertising in the twenty-first century is almost immeasurable. There are hundreds, if not thousands of different ways that advertisers are reaching people: including podcasts, product placement, and movie trailers… just to name a few. However, the frequency of our ad consumption has some analysts questioning whether or not advertisement is even effective. Although the chances of seeing an ad are higher, so are the odds of tuning it out completely.

Come back next week for Part 2, in which we will cover the effectiveness of advertising.