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Defining Events

Long before there were billboards to put advertisements on, there were rocks, the original walls for images and messages. And the Indian rock art paintings that date back to 4000 B.C. could be considered the start of out-of-home advertising. Before paper, there was papyrus—the original medium for Egyptians’ sales messages, and for ancient Greeks’ and Romans’ lost-and-found posters. Branding goes back a long way also. When Eric the Red pitched icy Greenland to immigrants in 985 A.D. as a paradise with lush, rolling hills, he was thinking like an ad man. He knew what the landlocked people wanted: green pastures. He named the place Greenland because he appreciated that a favorable name would convince the people of Norway to move there. He wasn’t completely lying about the greenery, because parts of Greenland were indeed green, and the land was wide open for settling. Eric created a brand that captivated consumers.

Four inventions since then that have created more opportunities for advertising and helped spread messages to larger populations are the printing press, radio, television, and the Internet.

In 1440, German goldsmith and inventor Johannes Gutenberg created the printing press—a hand press with moveable and replaceable wooden letters. Ink was rolled over these letters, which were then pressed onto sheets of paper to create text. The printing press speeded up book production, reduced the cost to print materials, and enabled information to be spread in volume to the masses.

Radio added a whole new medium for advertisers to reach consumers through sound. Commercial radio shows started airing in the 1920s in the United States. Advertisers produced and sponsored these shows, which included adventure, drama, comedy, horror, mystery, musical variety, romance, and thrillers. Rather than having commercial interruptions, the sponsors’ names were included in the show titles; for example, The Goodrich Zippers, The A&P Gypsies, The Voice of Firestone, and The Bell Telephone Hour.  Sponsorship was expensive, though, and by the next decade advertisers were opting instead for ads and ad jingles for radio broadcasts.

Television was the next big thing, invented in the 1920s but not mass-produced (and affordable for all) until the 1950s. TV enabled viewers to see and hear commercials. Advertising agencies had a whole new way of reaching consumers through 30- and 60-second mini-movies. This was also the start of ad agencies segmenting the audience and targeting the right commercial message to the right consumer. The development of cable television in the 1980s helped advertisers further pinpoint messages to specific consumers. For example, advertisements (such as beer commercials) geared to sports fans could be aired on ESPN, food- and cooking-related commercials could be on the Food Network, and anything to do with music, pop culture, and whatever else draws in the 12–24 demographic could be on MTV.  

The Internet and World Wide Web took off in the 1990s and advertisers quickly figured out how to use it in profitable ways. They developed banner and pop-up ads, and hot links, in place of TV commercials and print ads. Advertising agencies that focused on interactivity were created to meet client demand for this new medium. Online advertising continues to evolve, with display-related advertising now including rich media and digital video. Another benefit of the Internet is that advertisers can more accurately measure the effect of their campaigns. Today, advertisers also reach consumers through search engine marketing, search engine advertising, e-mail marketing, mobile advertising, and social media marketing on Web sites such as Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn. Geo-targeting is another recent development in the advertising business, by which advertisers deliver content specific to Web visitors’ locations (e.g., their city, state, country, Zip code, etc.). In 2003, Google introduced AdWords, which is site-targeted advertising. AdWords enables advertisers to use keywords, relevant domain names, topics, and demographics to target their preferences. Google then places the ads on the sites they think are relevant to the topic and target audience; they place the ads within their content network. Advertisers can bid on a cost-per-impression or cost-per-click basis.

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) oversees all forms of advertising, whether online or offline. Technology has added myriad ways for advertisers to reach consumers, but the laws that control advertisers and protect consumers are essentially the same as they’ve been for print, television, and radio advertising. Established in 1914, the FTC’s initial sole mission was to restrict advertising practices that it deemed unfair to competitors. In 1938, the Wheeler-Lea Act (an amendment to the FTC act) empowered the FTC to protect consumers from false advertising practices. Increased government regulation of product packaging and labeling also prohibited advertisers from making false claims about their products. Two acts that tightened control over manufacturers, as well as advertisers, include the Food and Drug Act of 1906, requiring manufacturers to list the active ingredients of their products on the packaging labels, and the Fair Packaging and Labeling Act of 1966, mandating that the packages and labels include the identity of the product, accurate information about the manufacturer (name and place of business, and the packer or distributor), and the net quantity of the contents.

“Truth in advertising.” We hear this statement all the time, but what does it mean? The Federal Trade Commission requires that advertisements not make misleading, false, or deceptive claims. One example of an advertisement that can be considered misleading or deceptive is if a product is promoted as being “light,” giving the impression that it’s low-calorie when it may actually have only a few calories less than the regular ingredients. Pictures in advertisements can also be deceptive. For instance, in 1968 BBDO put 15 marbles into a bowl of Campbell’s soup to help keep the vegetables afloat for the photographs. The FTC petitioned to eliminate this type of “corrective advertising,” and Campbell’s pulled the advertisements. Advertisers must have evidence to support their claims. These rules apply regardless of the medium, whether print, TV, radio, or digital.

Laws relating to tobacco advertising have also had a big effect on the advertising industry. Cigarette commercials were common in the 1950s and 1960s. Not only did John Wayne promote Camel (he died years later from lung cancer), Barney and Fred smoked Winstons in an early episode of The Flintstones. Real and fictional, everyone smoked. It was legal everywhere: in offices, movie theaters, classrooms, even in doctors’ waiting rooms and hospitals. The surgeon general released a report in 1964, however, that deglamorized cigarettes and got people’s attention: The report concluded that smoking causes lung cancer and is therefore hazardous to health. Some magazines, and TV and radio stations, stopped taking cigarette advertisements. Even Ogilvy & Mather and Doyle Dane Bernbach started turning away cigarette business. In 1965, the Federal Cigarette Labeling and Advertising Act required that all cigarette packs include the surgeon general’s warnings. Two years later, the government mandated that there be one antismoking ad for every three cigarette ads, and in 1971 broadcast ads for cigarettes were banned.

Since the 1970s, people have become hyperaware of cigarette ads and the messages they may be sending. For example, the Joe Camel ad campaign, introduced to the United States in 1988, spurred antismoking groups to take action. The R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company had been using the weird-looking cartoon character to attract young smokers. In 1997, under pressure from the FTC and the U.S. Congress, Reynolds replaced Joe Camel with its original camel trademark. A year later, a master settlement agreement (between U.S. tobacco companies and attorneys general from 46 states) banned the use of billboards, transit advertising, and cartoon characters for cigarette marketing, and put limits on event sponsorships related to cigarette brands. Many industry experts believe the industry may have lost as much as $220 million in revenue per year after the 1971 ban on tobacco commercials. What’s picked up for ad agencies since then, however, is point-of-purchase advertising (meaning promotions at the sites where cigarettes are sold) and, ironically enough, antismoking campaigns.