A Brief History of Advertising in America
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A Brief History of Advertising in America*

[Editor's Note: This article is a part of ADText.]

1. Introduction

Long before America was colonized, commerce flourished in the Old World where various methods were used to promote trade. Notice boards placed outside houses indicated what could be had within. Wine sellers gave free samples in the streets. And actors paraded in the streets attempting to entice onlookers into theatres. The idea of commerce is very old indeed, and the means of inducing others into exchange relationships was not far behind in its development. inline graphic inline graphic

Fig. 1. An English Ad Promoting Migration to America, 1609
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Fig. 1.

An English Ad Promoting Migration to America, 16091

Once transplanted, advertising eventually flourished in the United States to rival other countries in prevalence and economic importance. Although some forms—radio and television commercials and Internet advertising, for example—are uniquely American, the history of advertising must begin in Europe. inline graphic inline graphic

This unit surveys key moments in the development of modern American advertising practice. It focuses on two key themes: the development of advertising techniques, and the story encoded in advertisements about the society that produced them. inline graphic inline graphic

This history of advertising technique chronicles the movement from face-to-face selling messages to the stilted, repetitive, printed advertisements of early newspapers to the dynamism of mass communication by radio and television to the re-personalization of messages via cable, Internet, and direct mail. It is a story of sellers struggling to find the best means to attract buyers, and a parallel story of the public's reception, resistance, amusement, and annoyance. inline graphic inline graphic

FYI...
Wire recording (dating from the late 1800s) preceded the audio tape recorder (which became available around 1950) as a way to record speech and music. The kinescope was the first used in 1947 to record TV programs. Videotape came on the scene as a practical replacement for the kinescope in the late 1950s.

The social history preserved in advertisements is like an archaeological record. It is not a simple, faithful chronology of society but an assortment of bits and pieces on which the passage of social life is inscribed. By their very nature, advertisements are fleeting and ephemeral. Once they serve their intended purpose, they are typically discarded and quickly replaced. But some ads survive, preserved in old newspapers and magazines, on wire and tape recordings, and in kinescopes and videotapes. These preserved advertisements can be studied in the present for what they reveal about our collective past. From them, we learn not only about the techniques of past advertising but also about the society that produced them and the lives of the people who wrote, read, and heard their messages. inline graphic inline graphic

2. European Precedents

FYI…
Globalization has a very long history—ever since people began crossing boundaries and making connections across long distances.

We begin our story in the 1600s. Like the present, it was an age of globalization. A world that had seemed very grand and unknowable was being made smaller through exploration and discovery in the Elizabethan age. Sailing ships in unprecedented numbers set out from London to distant ports around the world—a conquest that would eventually lead to the development of the British Empire. At its height, British colonies around the world would form an empire on which, it would be said, the sun never set. This expansion included colonies in the New World that would later become the United States of America. inline graphic inline graphic

FYI...
British imperialism changed the world forever politically, economically, and culturally.

Mercantilism was the most important motivating force in its early stages. There were many reasons settlers would decide to leave home and strike out for a new life abroad—religious, political, and economic being among the most important. But whatever specific reasons motivated colonial settlers, it must have required courage or desperation to give up home and family and cast your lot in an unknown land. Advertising played its role in fueling these dreams and aspirations. To promote colonial ventures, sponsors placed ads in British newspapers: ads that promised solutions to nagging problems, ads that offered the fulfillment of dreams and the realization of hopes. inline graphic inline graphic

In addition to this outward expansion, the world came to...