Change: The Evolution of Advertising

Has Advertising evolved? Yes, we turned back 100 years.

This text is a semi-automated translation of an original article in Spanish. It is based on comments from Santiago Olivera, CEO of Y&R Argentina.

The square as the centre of urban life

For centuries, cities were built following the same design, regardless of the country. A square was built and, around it, the most representative buildings of power: the church ─a place of worship─ the Town Hall ─a place of government─ and the buildings that housed the estates that made up the government.

Surrounding the former were the people connected with the government and those who lived off commerce and, beyond the walls, lived the farmers. Together they formed “the people” … or “citizens”, as they were called from the eighteenth century onward.

Public squares were the centre of urban life.

Every important event occurred in the square, whether it was the execution of a prisoner, a cultural display, a political announcement or a commercial offer. Yes, a commercial offer: the merchants and farmers met in the squares and offered their products loudly.

The world has evolved sin then (for starters, we have stopped executing prisoners in our public squares), but some customs remained and others evolved.

For a long time public squares were the place for “people” (“citizens”) to meet… chat… criticise others… play with their kids or just watch life go by.

What happened to Advertising?

Traditionally, as I mentioned above, communication was carried out orally. Or was it?

The first “commercial – non-oral” communication registered was written on canvas, in 3,000 BC. It offered a reward for the recovery of a slave.

First written commercial
First written commercial

And since we are talking about printed communication, the first graphic notice was this one (published in The Boston News-Letter, in 1704):

The Boston News-Letter Image from the collections of the Massachusettts Historical Society.
The Boston News-Letter

Such a lengthy copy, right? It gives the impression that for this notice, the Creative Director transcribed the Brief word for word. But let’s continue with our story.

Ringling Brothers Outdoor Advertising
Ringling Brothers Outdoor Advertising

In 1835, the first billboards appeared, promoting Ringling Brothers circus. And in 1843 the first advertising agency was born: Volney B. Palmer. Later (in 1877), James Walter Thompson (JWT) would create the first mail order catalog, a method later known as Direct Marketing. It offered the remnants of the American Civil War.

And meanwhile, what happened to the people in the squares?

Not much really. The square remained a meeting place… for commercial exchange… and communication. This, despite the occasional man sitting on a bench reading his newspaper.

Thomas Edison
Thomas Edison

But at the end of the 19th century, something started to change: Thomas Alva Edison began to make a “capitalist” use of the recently discovered… electricity (“capitalist” as in: the use of electricity for lighting streets and houses).

With electricity and automobiles, the propagators were born: a “neighborhood collective” that in its genesis served as a local news source to villages and small towns with few inhabitants. It was the fastest and most direct link between neighbors, institutions and businesses.

Guglielmo Marconi
Guglielmo Marconi

In the squares nothing significantly changed, until … the Italian Guglielmo Marconi has the idea to invent… the radio! Mark the date: 1907.

Suddenly, everything changed. From the beginning of the 20th century, anybody who had something to say to “the people” could do so… by radio… to millions at the same time. Wow!

And from that moment on, the “word of mouth” technique that had worked so well in the squares would not be the same.

The Presidents of the USA no longer needed to travel the country by train and hold their speeches from the band wagon. In the same way, a company or a business could offer its products to more people, without having to wait to for them to gather in a square.

John Logie Baird by Howard Coster, half-plate film negative, 1935
John Logie Baird

And when it seemed that Mr. Marconi was going to go down in history as the person who revolutionised the media…  Surprise! From chianti to whiskey: enter an engineer, physicist and Scottish inventor named John Logie Baird who in 1924 invented… television.

Thus, BBC One (England), TF1 (France), ABC and NBC (USA) were born. Communication never returned to what it used to be. And the squares lost their convening power.


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