A Brief History of Advertising in America

ADText: Advertising Curriculum
Unit 2: A Brief History of Advertising in America

ADText Unit 2

Long before America was colonized, commerce flourished in the Old World where various methods were used to promote trade. Notice boards placed outside houses indicated what could be had within. Wine sellers gave free samples in the streets. And actors paraded in the streets attempting to entice onlookers into theatres. The idea of commerce is very old indeed, and the means of inducing others into exchange relationships was not far behind in its development.

Once transplanted, advertising eventually flourished in the United States to rival other countries in prevalence and economic importance. Although some forms — radio and television commercials and Internet advertising, for example — are uniquely American, the history of advertising must begin in Europe.

This unit surveys key moments in the development of modern American advertising practice. It focuses on two key themes: the development of advertising techniques, and the story encoded in advertisements about the society that produced them.

This history of advertising technique chronicles the movement from face-to-face selling messages to the stilted, repetitive, printed advertisements of early newspapers to the dynamism of mass communication by radio and television to the re-personalization of messages via cable, Internet, and direct mail. It is a story of sellers struggling to find the best means to attract buyers, and a parallel story of the public’s reception, resistance, amusement, and annoyance.

The social history preserved in advertisements is like an archaeological record. It is not a simple, faithful chronology of society but an assortment of bits and pieces on which the passage of social life is inscribed. By their very nature, advertisements are fleeting and ephemeral. Once they serve their intended purpose, they are typically discarded and quickly replaced. But some ads survive, preserved in old newspapers and magazines, on wire and tape recordings, and in kinescopes and videotapes. These preserved advertisements can be studied in the present for what they reveal about our collective past. From them, we learn not only about the techniques of past advertising but also about the society that produced them and the lives of the people who wrote, read, and heard their messages.

1. European Precedents

We begin our story in the 1600s. Like the present, it was an age of globalization. A world that had seemed very grand and unknowable was being made smaller through exploration and discovery in the Elizabethan age. Sailing ships in unprecedented numbers set out from London to distant ports around the world — a conquest that would eventually lead to the development of the British Empire. At its height, British colonies around the world would form an empire on which, it would be said, the sun never set. This expansion included colonies in the New World that would later become the United States of America.

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Revised 2010

ADText Unit Excerpts

"I developed a much higher respect for social marketing by seeing the value and complexity of this function which seemed very ambiguous to me before."
— Student at Boston College after AEF sent speakers from DigitasLBi