Want to hear a disgusting fact? In 2015 worldwide spending on advertising alone accounted for over an estimated 529 billion dollars. That is quite literally an unfathomable amount of cash spent trying to convince us to buy things we often don’t need, or to select one brand over the other. However, selling a product is often the same as selling an idea… if we buy “x” we will get “y,” with “y” often being something that the product may not actually help with. Regardless of whether or not you are selling a product or idea, or simply trying to communicate a message, art has always been deeply intertwined with this world of communication. Not all artists use their skills to make money, however it feels safe to assume that most full-time artists require their skills to be either contracted or employed in some way, so naturally, in today’s hyper-capitalistic, business-based world, artists of course use their skills to sell things… but where did this start? This week, I thought I would dial history as far back as ancient Egypt to discuss the origins of advertising and how modern, visual advertisements took shape in the 19th and 20th century.
Some quick facts about advertisements in ancient times: papyrus was used by Egyptians to create sale posters for various wares, thus becoming the first paper(ish) advertisements known to man. Commercial messages and political campaign displays have been found in buried ruins of Pompeii, and 11th century poetry was used by the people of China to sell confectionaries. However, I’m more interested in how advertising came to be from a modern business and psychological perspective.
Thomas J Barratt is known as the father of advertising for his original use of slogans, imagery, promotions and other now commonplace tactics to capture the attention of his buyers. High culture commercialism would take shape when he would purchase the rights to Sir John Everett Millais’ painting Bubbles for a mere 2,200 Euros. He would have the paintings mass printed with the name of his company on them, thus becoming a cornerstone for modern advertising. He would also invent the idea of changing tastes with the market. As the taste of the public morphed and shapeshifted, so too would the modern advertiser. Shortly after Thomas Baratt’s foray into advertising, publications such as newspapers and eventually magazines would start to include ads in them as well.
It wouldn’t be until the turn 20th century when the darker side of advertising would become normal. As America was industrializing and mass producing products, a new form of “sublimated” advertising would blow up in the United States in particular when Edward Bernays, a nephew of Sigmund Freud, would come up with the idea of selling to the unconscious part of the American mind. This is where the term “sex sells” comes from, and takes us into modern day advertising techniques. An example of this would be this creepy 1916 advertisement for soap by Helen Lansdowne.
With advances in technology, advertising remains perpetually one step ahead of the consumer, not only using psychology, but also location, conversations and data to personalize advertisements even more. All I can hope for is a world where corporate design doesn’t feel like the safe option.
Featured image is 1927 Coke at “Thirst”