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The History and Evolution of Advertising


There are two main aspects of marketing: its strategy and its tactical push. Renowned polymath and Professor of Marketing at the Lee Kong Chian School of Business, Singapore Management University, Nirmalya Kumar, explains that the strategic aspect has not changed over the years, as businesses have always and will continue to formulate a plan based on what he coins as the three Vs:

1.      Valued customer: Who to serve

2.      Value proposition: What is being offered to the customers

3.      Value network: How to deliver the value proposition to a valued customer

Instead, what has drastically changed is the tactical push in marketing, such as the methods of advertising used to reach consumers. From ancient civilisations to the digitalisation of the 21st century, advertising as a marketing tactic has been revolutionised alongside technological advancements and ever-evolving consumer behaviours. In this blog, we will journey through the evolution of advertising and gain a deeper insight and understanding of where the industry is headed.

The Origins of Advertising

One of the world’s oldest known advertisements was said to originate from Ancient Egypt, in the form of a papyrus that a scribe was commissioned to create. The papyrus details that a fabric seller named Hapu would reward those who could find the whereabouts of an individual he enslaved, Shem, to be returned to him and his store, where the most beautiful fabrics are woven to each individual’s liking. Not only was the purpose of this advertisement to find Shem, but the not-so-subtle praises towards his store aimed to attract more customers. Similar forms of lost and found advertisements were also believed to be popular in Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome.

Then, in Pompeii, graffiti was commonly used as political advertising, with wall inscriptions urging the community to vote for a certain person to become the aedile, a magistrate responsible for overseeing the public buildings, games and streets.

Though its origins are ambiguous, we can agree that various mediums aimed to inform and influence people’s behaviour have existed for a long time.

Legacy Media: Print, Outdoor and Broadcast Advertising

In the mid-1400s, German goldsmith and inventor Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press, which allowed for large quantities of written material to be produced less laboriously and more time-efficiently.

People began to notice that printing allowed them to easily disseminate information to potential customers, and the first printed advertisement popped up shortly after. In Britain alone, the first print advertisement was said to be by William Caxton in the late 15th century, promoting a book called ‘The Pyes of Salisbury.’

It was in the 1700s that advertisements started appearing frequently in newspapers, and it became the leading advertising medium throughout the first half of the 19th century. Advertising had also become a viable business, with the earliest known and recorded advertising agency dating back to 1786.

However, print was only one of many options, as billboard advertisements started appearing by the early 19th century. As it was frequently placed along roads, its popularity was accelerated by the time cars were introduced due to people’s increased mobility and more frequent travel.

In the 20th century, radio, the first broadcast medium, was introduced. The first radio ad was aired in 1922 when The New York City radio station WEAF had a 10-15 minute long advertisement promoting apartments for a real estate company. Radio also created and popularised the use of jingles, which used a combination of catchy tunes with snappy phrases that were associated with a brand to increase its memorability and strengthen its brand identity among consumers.

TV followed soon after, and watchmaker Bulova’s advertisement secured the title of ‘first TV advert in history’ after their commercial was shown before a baseball game on July 1st, 1941. The advent of television allowed for a stronger visual medium than all previous forms of advertising. This meant that brands had more room to experiment with short-duration commercials, catchy jingles, celebrity endorsements, product demonstrations and infomercials, and much more.

The introduction of broadcast media meant that there was also a wider variety of advertising channels to choose from. However, brands needed to understand what medium would work best for their product or service, so it was during this period that the concept of marketing and advertising started to become more refined based on an evolving understanding of the consumer along with their attitudes and behaviours.

The Digital Age of Advertising

People quickly realised that the inception of the internet opened a whole new realm of opportunities that could truly revolutionise the marketing industry. This realisation, coupled with rapid technological advancements, saw plenty of continuous innovations in digital advertising in a relatively short period. While the first form of digital advertising was a banner ad in 1994 that was not particularly groundbreaking, the launch of DoubleClick that followed soon after made it possible to track banner ads, consumer behaviour, and, in turn, ROI (Return on Investment).

One of the most notable developments was the emergence of search engines, such as the launch of Google in 1988, which enabled businesses to promote their products and services to internet users actively searching for specific products. Companies could either pay to secure a spot at the top of the search or reach consumers organically by refining their website and the keywords used to be as relevant to the search as possible, known today as SEO (Search Engine Optimisation) marketing. This form of marketing is still extremely relevant and highly effective to this day, especially since the algorithms used to retrieve and present information on the internet become increasingly sophisticated with the creation of AI (Artificial Intelligence).

Read more: How to Build a Strong SEO Strategy (in 8 Steps)

Following the rise of social media platforms in the early 2000s, most notably Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, and most recently, TikTok, brands could advertise within these platforms to reach even more consumers. Beyond that, social media also allowed for the creation of a new marketing concept: influencer marketing. As many individuals created content that appealed to other online users, they gained many followers who were highly engaged in what they did or had to say. These creators also frequently engaged and built relationships with those who consumed their content, creating higher authority and trust that enabled them to influence people’s attitudes and behaviours. A 2022 Adweek survey found that 90 per cent of consumers trust influencers over celebrities in making purchase decisions, and 65 per cent of 18-to-24-year-olds have made a purchase based on an influencer’s recommendation. Due to this, many brands saw influencers as an opportunity to promote their products and services and supplied them with affiliate links for advertising.

More recently, the concept of UGC (User Generated Content) emerged. This refers to content about a product or service created by third parties not associated with the brand itself. Thus, there is no financial compensation. Examples of these include unboxing videos, tutorials or reviews. However, there are UGC creators who do get incentivised to create content, but unlike influencers, they will not be sharing the content on their own personal platforms, as brands will essentially purchase the right to distribute the content as a part of their advertising campaigns.

Retail Media: The Future of Advertising

While social media advertising is still an essential part of a brand’s marketing strategy to this day, many strategic thinkers have started looking towards retail media as the next big thing, with global retail media ad spending forecasted to increase by 10.2 percent in 2024 and potentially surpassing the value of TV revenue by 2028. An example of this can be seen in Amazon, one of the most visited websites globally, with 3-4 billion total visits a month, according to SEM Rush, which has already become a top search engine for people looking to buy a product.

Previously, customers had to seek an advertisement on social media platforms such as Instagram or Facebook, click on the ad to be redirected to the purchasing platform, and make several more clicks before purchasing the product. Meanwhile, through retail media networks, all it takes is one simple click as products are being advertised on the same platform on which they are being sold.

Not only does it make the purchasing process more convenient for consumers, but the built-in algorithms also work in the favour of businesses. Speaking on a process called collaborative filtering, Professor Nirmalya Kumar explains, “When you have bought ten products, they look at those people who have bought these ten products; what was the next most correlated product they bought? And that’s the one they present to you when you come online.”

That’s not all. The ways in which products are advertised in retail media networks have grown to be more complex, requiring much creativity. Professor Nirmalya Kumar explained that digital marketplace Alibaba had incorporated the hugely popular ‘Tiktokisation’ of advertising by holding one-hour video live streams in which public figures such as K-Pop celebrities attract huge audiences, talk about the products they like, and viewers are only one click away from a purchase.

Advertising as a marketing tactic has come a long way since its inception, and it is clear throughout history that introducing new technologies and shifting consumer behaviours will continuously revolutionise where marketing experts allocate their advertising budgets. To learn more about how to successfully leverage strategic marketing and advertising tactics on a wider scale, listen to Professor Nirmalya Kumar’s insights into strategic marketing on the PRCA Fuse podcast episode on Apple, Spotify or YouTube.