Imagine standing in the dead center of Times Square. Aggressive flashing lights, pulses, and neon words play tug-o-war for your attention. Inviting music oozes from the glare of what seems like a thousand restaurants as errant street vendors grapple to be heard above the din. Everywhere you turn, someone or something begs you to do this, eat that or buy a product.
While standing in the midst of this electronic mayhem, it might be hard to imagine this sensory explosion has anything in common with the ancient past. Now press the pause button. Halt the pulsating lights, mute the blaring horns and music. In the stillness that was once quivering for your attention, take a moment to contemplate the purpose of it all: to make people do things.
Advertisers use Times Square’s high-traffic venue to seduce your most straightforward senses: the eyes and ears. Ancient people did the same thing. Journey back many moons to the ruined city of Pompeii and you’ll find the Times Square concept at work, backed by less technology. Among other treasures, explorers pulled remnants of graffiti-covered walls from Pompeii’s ashes. The graffiti included notices of goods and services for sale and even campaign slogans for hopeful politicians, leading some to conclude Pompeian walls blazed trails for our modern posters and billboards.
Pompeii hints at an ancient human instinct to get important messages in front of as many eyeballs as possible, in short, to advertise. And it wasn’t just the Romans, ancient graffiti around the world was used to communicate the world’s first ads. The Australian Aborigines used hand stencils to advertise their presence in a certain area, the Vikings proclaimed the existence of buried treasure and the Native Americans used rock art to reveal game trails. Check out our posts on ancient graffiti to learn more about this ancient urge to get the message out.
While the flashy messages of Times Square might bounce off of us now, there was a time when even a simple persuasive message had the power to sway hearts and change actions. Before we became jaded by the proliferation of advertising messages, an organized campaign toting a simple message had the power to change the course of history. Here are just some of the ways advertising played a leading role in human history.
Building a New World
Long before stars-and-stripes and bald eagles, America was nothing more than a vague concept to the population of Europeans who would one day settle its wild bounty. For most people, the decision to make the grueling voyage across the Atlantic to the New World didn’t spring from chance or accident, but months of planning and precalculation. That planning often started with an early version of an advertising campaign. Historian Richard Hofstadter, believed that America sprung from one of the “first concerted and sustained advertising campaigns in the history of the modern world.”
In eighteenth century Britain, you couldn’t walk down the street without being bombarded with signs and handbills professing the wonder and opportunity of the New World. Strong printed endorsements from the writers of the day further propelled the wonders of America to mythological proportions. A modern campaign for the New World would certainly have included the quote from Thomas Paine’s Common Sense referring to America as “the asylum for the persecuted lovers of civil and religious liberty from every part of Europe.”
In other strategies, shipping companies on the way to America hired bands of savvy “New World brand ambassadors” to travel through German states in brightly colored wagons roaring a fanfare of trumpets and drums. Crowds drawn by the commotion were regaled with stories of New World marvels designed to sell them transatlantic tickets on the spot. These first “brand ambassadors” certainly recruited some of the 360,000 German immigrants present in America by 1790.
Now that we’ve piqued your interest, don’t miss Part 2 coming soon…
Author: Ashley Bell is a full time nonprofit outreach and program manager and part time history detective. She likes to look to the past to explain where we are today.
 Ross, Ashley, “The Evolution of Advertising from Papyrus to YouTube,” ETEC540 Community Weblog, 2010. Retrieved from http://blogs.ubc.ca/etec540sept10/2010/11/29/the-evolution-of-advertising-from-papyrus-to-youtube/.
 Gupta, Oma, “Advertising in India: Trends and Impact,” Gyan Publishing House, 2005. Retrieved from: http://goo.gl/pZz3LJ
 “Common Sense,” Digital History 2014. Retrieved from http://www.digitalhistory.uh.edu/disp_textbook.cfm?smtID=3&psid=151
 Ed. Lawrence W. Baker, et al, “German Immigration, ” U.S. Immigration and Migration Reference, 2004. Retrieved from: http://goo.gl/gAEo1d
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