Evolution of Advertising: Past to Present

Advertising has been around for a long time, much longer than most of us realize. Technically, the first advertisement occurred whenever was the first time someone told another person that they could get some item for a certain price, and it was most likely before recorded history. It’s difficult to pin down exactly when was the first time the concept was put into practice.

In the beginning, it was definitely through word-of-mouth, and interestingly enough, that is still one of the most effective methods of advertising. What we’re focusing on in this article, though, is the history of advertising in the United States and how we got from the original incantations to today.

The First Ads in the New World

“A Brief History of Advertising in America” by William M. O’Barr notes that the first known advertisements in the would-be U.S. came before we won our independence from the British Empire.

Since branding did not exist at the time, they were simply used to announce, generically, that something was available without telling of any company that was producing that thing. Around 1700 is when the first ads began to be published through newspapers in colonial America when, “newspapers were scarce … and the ads they carried were few”. (Project Muse, O’Barr).

Our very own Benjamin Franklin was the one who played the most significant role during this time in publishing the first American ads in The Philadelphia Gazette and Poor Richard’s Almanac, before the revolution.

Among the items they advertised in the paper were French lessons and needlework lessons for women. Indentured servants were also put on offer. A bit later, imported goods such as rum and molasses were offered.

Branding: Modern Advertising is Born

The first ads would have looked very foreign to us because they only showed some item or service provided for a cost, but they gave no reference to any organization that was selling it. This kind of branding came much later, around the 19th century, when purveyors and manufacturers of goods began stamping their names on products.

To “brand” something literally means to burn something with a mark, which is what companies eventually began to do. It just goes to show how long progress can take sometimes because it actually took over a hundred years for manufacturers to realize that they can secure some repeat business by putting their names on their products.

It would then be even a few more decades until businesses took a really significant leap in advertising when they started actively trying to persuade people to buy something by telling them about some unique, special value that it possessed. This was the start of advertising and marketing as we know it in the 20th century.

Advertising Explodes in the 20th Century

From the early times where newspaper was the only medium wherein producers could tell the public about what they had to offer, came the age of radio, which not only made it possible to reach a much larger audience, but also got the message across much more quickly and efficiently.

Radio ads were strangely similar to the “native ads” that we see on the Internet today. Native ads basically make the ad seem like the product, itself, and we’ll look at this method below. When people listened to their favorite programs on the radio, it was always “brought to them by” whatever company was advertising during that program.

People were not accustomed to this at all because there was no precedent for it at the time, so they associated the advertiser so deeply with the content that they believed the advertiser was the author of it.

The next phase was television. Television commercials came on the scene and changed the game forever. Now that the public was familiar with the format of advertisements, they knew what they were looking at when they saw it on TV, but the aversion we have to those commercials we have today didn’t exist–they didn’t have any hate for the interruption. It was widely welcomed because, in a sense, everyone saw the commercials as an opportunity to learn about what was available for them to buy.

After a few decades of advancement through technology, television ads eventually gave birth to Internet advertising, and the rest is a history we all know very well.

Moving Into the New Millenium

The 1990s saw the advent of the Internet on a large scale, but no one could have predicted what would come next. When the 21st century came around, the advertising industry turned into a wildfire that wouldn’t be stopped.

As the Internet became a utility that was used daily by every developed nation on the planet, advertisers followed suit and put their ads in every open space they could find. They went from sponsoring websites, to banner ads, to a lot more banner ads, to mobile apps, to ads that follow you everywhere you go on the web.

Podcasts then came out in the 2000s and were untainted by advertising for a long time, but by the next decade, as we all see now, ads found those, too. Podcasts are the new radio. Though radio still exists, the options are more and more limited, while podcasts are pretty much limitless.

You can find a podcast for any subject or interest as you are so inclined, and you can even skip the ads if you want to. Not only that, but you can listen to them whenever you want to, instead of being at the mercy of what and when the radio station wants to play. Advertisers are well aware of this, which is why they are increasingly targeting podcasts that their customers are listening to.

The bottom line is that advertisers will go wherever the attention is, so they’re going to find every spot where people are looking and put their ads as close to their sight line as they can possibly get.

Current Advertising Channels

What methods are available to advertise your product, now? There are quite a few, and here are the best ways any business can use get their brand out into the open in an effective way as possible.

  • SEM & SEO
  • Search Engine Marketing (SEM) and Search Engine Optimization (SEO) are the key methods for a business to use to expose their brand to the public because there is virtually no cost to do it, outside of the time it takes to publish. Generally done by posting blog articles that target your customers, any business can use SEO to lead people to your website.

  • SMM
  • Social Media Marketing (SMM) encompasses everything you do to promote your product on social media outlets. There are paid ads available for this method, but you can also do it for free if you know how to draw attention to your posts. It’s arguably better to pay for ads on Facebook or Instagram, but every business needs to do their own testing to see what kind of campaign will be the most successful.

  • PPC
  • Pay Per Click (PPC) ads can be very useful, while you need to run some thorough testing beforehand to be sure it doesn’t blow out your profit margin. This can easily turn out for you to be a waste of money, given the other available marketing channels.

  • Native Advertising
  • Native advertising can be tricky because it only works so far, until people realize that what they’re seeing is not true content but an ad that looks like true content. It may not be the best option to use, as it basically intends to trick people into looking at your brand.

  • Retargeting
  • Retargeting can be very effective. It basically uses cookies and web search data to “follow” people as they navigate the Internet from one site to another. When they click on a link to your business website once, the ad retargets them by popping up again as they move somewhere else. The only real obstacle to this method is when someone uses ad blockers.

  • Affiliate Marketing
  • Affiliate marketing is a fairly new idea within the past few years that is definitely more honest marketing because you’re asking people to refer other customers to your business with an incentive. People can actually earn money or credit with your company if they refer others to you.

    By itself, it’s certainly beneficial to know where the concept and industry of advertising came from, but this is more than just an informative article. For one, understanding the evolution of advertising and marketing for businesses shows you how it tends to progress over time and how you might predict where it’s going at the present moment. But more than that, you can see what worked, what didn’t, and what to look out for as you attempt different methods. Who knows? You may be the company that comes up with the next great shift in advertising.


    Stephanie is the Marketing Director at Talkroute and has been featured in Forbes, Inc, and Entrepreneur as a leading authority on business and telecommunications.

    Stephanie is also the chief editor and contributing author for the Talkroute blog helping more than 100k entrepreneurs to start, run, and grow their businesses.

    StephanieEvolution of Advertising: Past to Present