Brief history of advertising, from its origins to the present day

Advertising, understood as a form of communication aimed at “making known” certain products or services, is very old. Primordial forms of advertising can already be traced back to Egyptian, Greek, Roman civilizations, as well as in other ancient and medieval cultures. In recent centuries, however, advertising has changed completely. First of all, the invention of press, which occurred in the fifteenth century, opened up new spaces for the advertising of products and services. In the twentieth century, the rise of mass society it was the cause and effect of the development of advertising in its modern form. Furthermore i new means of communication – cinema, radio, television and, lastly, the internet – have facilitated the spread of advertising and have changed the messages it conveys. Today advertising contributes significantly to determining our choices.

What is advertising

By advertising we mean one form of communication aimed at the masses and aimed at creating attention towards certain products or services. However, there is not just one type of advertising and the different genres can be classified in various ways. One of the most common is to classify advertising by media: print, radio, television, digital advertising. Another system bases the division on the product/service to which the advertisement wants to draw attention. In this case we can distinguish three main categories:

  • commercial advertisingaimed at encouraging the sale of a good or service;
  • ppolitical advertising, which brings to attention a party or candidate in the elections; in many respects theadvocacy advertisingwhich aims to promote a specific thesis on issues on which there are different opinions;
  • social advertisingwhich disseminates information on topics of general interest.
Uncle Sam's famous 1917 poster is one of the most successful advertisements.

The origins of advertising

It is impossible to determine with certainty when advertising was born. Forms of communication aimed at making commercial activities known (such as signs of shops and stores) have existed since the times of the first structured civilizations, such as the Egyptian one.


As the centuries passed, advertising spread on a larger scale. On the walls of the Pompeii excavations there are commercial writings from the 1st century AD. C., relating to the presence of taverns or even cheap prostitutes, and also political writings, aimed at favoring specific candidates in the elections.

Advertisements of this kind did not disappear in Middle Ages but, since the population was largely illiterate, the shop signs were often made up of images and not written texts.

Even in other civilizations, such as the Chinese one, primordial forms of commercial advertising have been present since ancient and medieval times.

Chinese bronze plaque from the Song period (10th–13th century AD), advertising a needle shop.

Advertising from the invention of the press to the nineteenth century

A significant change for the evolution of advertising was the invention of the printing press, which occurred in the 15th century, which allowed the production of flyers, posters and commercial cards in series. Furthermore, between the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the publication of periodical journalspredecessors of the current newspapers, which from their origins hosted advertisements for commercial products.

At the end of the eighteenth century, the industrial revolution made the printing of newspapers and other materials cheaper, favoring the diffusion of advertisements, and gradually posters to advertise products and services became a usual component of urban landscapes.

Towards the end of the nineteenth century the communication techniques. An English entrepreneur, Thomas Barratt, director of the Pears soap company, used works of art and famous testimonials to make his products known. For this reason, Barrat is considered the father of modern advertising.

Pears soap poster, 1900
Pears soap poster, 1900.

Advertising in the twentieth century and mass society

In the twentieth century, a real boom in advertising took place, closely linked to the progressive spread of mass society, that is, the type of society in which the population has an important role in political and social life, but also undergoes a homologation of tastes and desires. Advertising was both cause and effect of the advent of mass society: on the one hand it has contributed to spreading fashions and trends on a national or, in some cases, even global scale; on the other, with the advent of consumerism, has made it essential to advertise goods and services. Furthermore, mass society has favored the spread of political propagandabecause the consent of citizens has become indispensable for the stability of governments and political regimes: in democracies the advertising of election candidateswhile in authoritarian regimes propaganda is regularly used to create consensus around governments and political leaders.

1913 advertisement for the Encyclopaedia Britannica.

Advertising and new means of communication

In the 20th and 21st centuries, the channels through which advertising “travels” have also changed, spreading to new audiovisual means of communication: cinema, radio and, above all, the television, which in the second half of the twentieth century became the main vehicle of advertising communication. In Italy, television advertising was born with the program Carosello, broadcast from 1957 to 1977, which brought together all the advertising spots.

The Carosello logo
The Carosello logo.

Online advertising

The internet has hosted advertisements since the early years of its history. Since the beginning of the 21st century, however, online advertising has undergone an important change, because it has becomepersonalized” for individual users: the ads are determined by the information collected from browsing data. Online advertising is proving itself very effective and is taking away market shares from advertisements in other media.

After all, advertising, as we all know, is today highly invasive and helps to determine not only our commercial and political choices, but also our behaviors, desires and lifestyles.