The History of Marketing & Advertising


A timeline showing the history of marketing through icons: Cuneiform, signs with pictures, a shouting speech bubble, a newspaper, a radio, an old TV, and the symbol for the internet

The history of marketing and advertising extends throughout human history. For centuries, we’ve been making products, marking them, and trading or selling them to others in exchange for some form of currency. While scholars debate certain details, it’s hard to deny the existence of marketing and advertising when you look back over time.

The Ancient World

Across the Mediterranean, there has been evidence of advertising and marketing techniques. Ancient Egyptians would write posters and sales information on papyrus. Pompeii and Arabia have had pieces of commercial and political displays. One man in Pompeii, Umbricius Scauras, used a series of mosaic patterns in his atrium to advertise the quality of his fish sauce. Ancient bottles were made with distinct shapes and markings to help people identify the contents of the bottle and the person who produced it. There’s evidence of stamped wine jars and carbonized loaves of bread bearing the mark of their baker. Rock and wall paintings have been found throughout Africa, Asia and South America. Ancient Greece and Rome used papyrus for advertising, too.

The Middle Ages

Medieval Europe gave rise to market towns and trade-based economies. Smaller towns would hold markets one or two times a week, while larger towns and cities had them every day. Over time, permanent shops took the place of markets and those shops bore signs. Because most people were illiterate, the signs would often have a picture on them to denote the products sold in the shop (boots, hats, candles, etc.). Street criers were also popular—they could announce important information and inform people were to find produce carts and other businesses.

The Eastern Hemisphere

While advertising and marketing developed in the west, they were also similarly present in the east. China has evidence of branding that dates back as early as 200 B.C.E. There are records of people playing bamboo flutes as a way to sell candy, and copper plates for printing advertisements on paper. Between 600-900 A.D., the government imposed specific product branding. Signs were popular in China as well. Unlike the western half of the world, marketing in China seemed to develop more as a means of maintaining status and less as a means of earning profit, but it developed all the same.

Europe in the 17th & 18th Centuries

Trade continued to grow and expand, going from a less local practice to a more regional one. Businesses wanted more information about trade conditions before making decisions, so they began to send people out to collect it. At the time, this type of information was seen as “commercial research” or “commercial intelligence,” but today we’d consider it “marketing research.” Josiah Wedgewood, an English potter, is credited as having started direct mailing, traveling salesmen, and catalogues. Another potter, Matthew Boulton, was simultaneously developing techniques for mass production and product differentiation. He also did some early celebrity marketing, giving nobility a discounted version of the product and benefiting from the publicity they generated for him.

The 19th & 20th Centuries

Transportation systems progressed and that brought the economy to a more unified place. Companies began to sell branded, standardized goods on a national scale and this changed marketing approaches. In order to appeal to as many demographics as possible, companies manufactured products of varying quality and price. This created what is now called market segmentation and product differentiation. Marketing research became more robust. It started with income and education level, and then expanded into looking at things like lifestyles, values, and beliefs. Businesses wanted to understand why people bought certain products and not others. Universities began to offer courses on marketing, separating it from it’s previous place as “applied economics.”

Contemporary Advertising

From papyrus posters to rock wall paintings, advertising has been around since the ancient times. The printing press brought the development of books and magazines. The use of imagery became more popular as printing capabilities grew. Then came the radio, the television, and finally the internet. Even though media has changed significantly, advertising hasn’t gone anywhere. If anything, new platforms have provided new opportunities to reach people and inform them about products and services. Marketing and advertising continue to shape culture to this day.

If you are looking to advertise your small business, contact Bold River Marketing for help. We can design a logo for you, film and edit videos about your business, and give you an SEO-friendly website. Give us a call for help with your marketing today.