Ever since the first caveman realized that he could trade excess food for tools, people have been obsessed with the power of advertising. Though it has taken many forms and designs over the years, the goal of advertising has always been to reach out to people and get them interested in the product you’re offering. Primitive advertising mediums sought to target everyone and anyone on the chance that they might want what you were selling, but advanced modern marketers seek only those people who are already interested in what they have to offer. Today, we explore the evolution of advertising and the strategies that businesses as far back as BC times used to try to get customers through their doors.
Advertising began way back, at a time far before computers or color printing was available. According to XTimeline, the earliest known advertisers were the ancient Babylonians, who had the bright idea of creating signs for the sides of their stores. In the year of 3000 BC, having a sign on your building that listed the merchandise you carried was impressive stuff. It would attract people walking by and perhaps even convince a few of them to step inside. Even more impressive is that Babylonian construction and design businesses are credited with inventing the idea of sponsorships. They managed to convince their King to allow them to stencil their own names on the side of the temples they built.
The weekly newspaper is where many of us used to go to check out the newest products and sales for our next shopping trip. However, few realize that this practice of advertising dates back to early 19th century France. WiseGeek reports that the French periodical La Presse was the first to include paid advertising in its pages. This paper was started in 1836 and, according to Reading for the Plot: Design and Intention in Narrative by Peter Brooks, was the first tabloid style penny press paper in France. At the time, the newspapers were the only medium that allowed an advertiser to reach a massive, local audience (probably with some form of disposable income) all at one time.
By the year 1949, there were over one million television sets in the United States alone, and marketers began to sense the coming of the most revolutionary advertising medium since the Babylonians first inscribed their brands on the sides of temples. Television presented an opportunity to deliver short, detailed sales messages, product demonstrations and testimonials to an audience the entire country wide. Advertisers had found a goldmine of endless possibility, and so, beginning in the late 1940s and early 1950s, Americans began seeing television commercials in-between (and sometimes as part of) their favorite programs. In the early days of TV advertising, many commercials focused on sing-song tunes that advertisers hoped people would remember as they went shopping. This 1959 TV commercial for Coke illustrates this nicely.
Today, television advertising has grown into an $80 billion industry. However, the ability to record television shows and fast forward through the commercials threatens the value of these expensive slots. Advertising in the DVR Age by AdOpsOnline points out the problems that this growing new technology presents to television advertisers. But would the Super Bowl be the Super Bowl without commercials? Speaking of commercials’ Oscar Night, the nature of television ads themselves has greatly changed since their idyllic beginnings. While many ads still sing us songs about their products, there has been a tendency to use high-tech graphics to showcase the product in some visually stimulating way. The Super Bowl is one of the best times to witness expensive commercials in action. Take this 2010 commercial for Coke as an example, comparing it to the one released in the late ’50s.
Guerrilla marketing is an unconventional approach to advertising that caught on among entrepreneurs in the 1990s. The aim of guerrilla marketing is to pull an attention-grabbing publicity stunt that makes a lasting impression on everyone who sees it. Urban living blog WebUrbanist features a perfect example of guerrilla marketing in action, as a furniture store transformed a series of bus stops into luxury living room arrangements. Hip hop musicians have also been known to use guerrilla marketing to sell clothing by singing about it in their songs (for an example, see “Air Force Ones” by Nelly).
Guerrilla marketing is popular among entrepreneurs for two important reasons. Young companies don’t typically have the mammoth advertising accounts that their established competitors can wield, and guerrilla marketing tactics are an inexpensive way to compete without springing for a million dollar television commercial or similar expense. Secondly, hundreds of years of advertising have taught us to expect ads in certain places, causing us to become quite good at tuning them out. Guerrilla marketing increases the odds that the advertisement will be remembered by catching us off guard and while our defenses are down.
As the Internet exploded in popularity throughout the ’90s, it became increasingly important to organize the multitude of available web pages. The solution was the invention of the search engine, and with it came a unique and effective marketing strategy that is still thriving today. Search engine marketing (SEM) allows marketers to display advertising to searchers for as many keywords as they choose. Using the online software provided by search engines, businesses can select the keywords they want to advertise on, write their ads, select a bid price, and be showing ads in moments.
SEM is so effective because it allows an advertiser to catch the user at the precise moment that they are thinking about things related to their product. Before search marketing, the best an advertiser could do was to think about what type of person might be watching a particular TV show or reading a certain magazine, and hope to catch their attention with an ad. With SEM, a company who sells widgets can show an advertisement every time someone searches “where can I find widgets.” It’s real-time targeting.
The popularization of the Internet in the mid 1990s and early 2000s was also the second coming of the television for advertisers—a new way to get ads into people’s homes on an impossibly large scale. Similar to the billboards we see on the sides of our highways or the graphic ads that appear in the pages of our favorite magazines, banner and pop up ads are full color graphics that appear on a website. Except for one important difference: They’re clickable. These ads were a huge advancement for direct response marketing and marked the first time in history that a company could test the effectiveness of its ads in a matter of hours.
If a web surfer is interested, he or she can click an ad and be directed to the business’ website , where he’ll have the opportunity to either make a purchase or leave. Since the whole system is trackable, companies know where their clicks come from and, most importantly, whether any of them actually convert to sales. If there’s a problem with the ad, it can be changed and re-posted almost instantly, eliminating the need to wait for next month’s magazine issue to edit a non-convincing tagline.
After the Babylonians gave advertising its big kick-off, there was no stopping the innovation that marketers would bring to the field. It wasn’t long before business owners raised the bar and paid employees to stand on street corners and hold up big signs advertising their store. And, while it’s not exactly innovative, this advertising technique doesn’t seem to be going away any time soon. This new strategy actually generated a big response, since it is generally much easier to ignore a passive sign hung on the side of a building than an actual person enthusiastically waving a sign your way, possibly dressed in a ridiculous costume.
In 2005, an ad agency called Bumvertising innovated on this age old strategy by encouraging companies to pay homeless people to hold their signs for them. Needless to say, this morally-questionable strategy stirred up quite a bit of controversy, which, depending on how you look at advertising, could be considered a good thing.
But perhaps things have come full circle, as some companies seem to be returning to the days of one-of-a-kind advertising and the art of creating an original graphic. Colossal Media is one such company; the premise of the business is that its artist will paint original billboards, right there on the side of the highway. And they don’t paint a small stock image either—instead they paint the original on brick walls or rooftops for the world to see. The Wall Street Journal reported on this interesting approach to advertising and suggested that the main reason why so many businesses are willing to pay the high cost of hiring Colossal (between $5,000 -$100,000) is because of the buzz the entire project creates. When people see a building being painted with a huge new ad that evolves minute by minute, they stop to look. This is just the reaction that companies are looking for, and it’s what fuels Colossal’s unique business model and perhaps points to a coming anti-evolution in the world of ads.
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