The Ancient Origins and History of Modern Marketing and Advertising

Marketing and Advertising Partner

To Market or to Advertise?

While many experts attempt to draw a line between advertising and marketing, very few can agree exactly where that line is. Is advertising paid for while marketing is not? Is marketing part of advertising or advertising part of marketing? Is advertising primarily visual while marketing is primarily textual? Does marketing involve preparation while advertising implies execution?

In some ways, each of these distinctions is simultaneously useful and futile, especially as the internet and other technologies continue to blur lines between mediums, platforms, and devices. For our present purposes, marketing and advertising can be considered synonymous because both have long histories in cultures across the globe that have helped them evolve into their modern equivalents.

The “Origins” of Marketing and Advertising

Many agencies seem to be under the impression that marketing and advertising are somehow “new” developments that arose in parallel with the Industrial Revolution and consumer economy of the 19th and 20th centuries. While the origins of “modern” advertising may lie among the changes brought about by the advent of mass production, free public education, telecommunications, and other advances of the 19th century, the simple truth is this: for as long as two people in a village have competed in the same business (or one person has tried to peddle a new innovation), some form of marketing has been a cornerstone of successfully selling (or even bartering for) goods and services.

For example, works from ancient China detail a practice of candy makers playing a bamboo flute in order to attract customers — a practice still used today with ice cream trucks and other vendors, albeit with more advanced and powerful sound mechanisms.

The earliest known printed advertisement also comes from China. Dating from the Song dynasty (960-1279 CE), an ad for needles says “we buy high quality steel rods and make fine quality needles that are ready for use at home in no time.” This sounds remarkably modern — not because the advertiser was a thousand years ahead of their time, but because the primary concerns of consumers of any time period are both timeless and universal. People want high-quality products and services, and they don’t want to wait to get them. The advertisement also contained the image of a rabbit holding a needle, a logo for the brand.

Other advertising methods existed across the ancient world. Hand-inscribed papyrus leaflets and posters were used for purposes ranging from promoting politicians to finding lost objects (or people). Even today, coffee shops in many locales can be found displaying corkboards layered with advertisements for roommates, lost pets, or an upcoming election.

Outdoor advertising was also particularly common in ancient civilizations. Sellers in Egypt, Greece, and Rome would paint or carve advertisements onto prominently featured surfaces such as the sides of buildings or large rocks near paths with heavy foot traffic. In areas with limited literacy among the general populace (or great linguistic diversity among shoppers), vendors would create image-based signs that depicted their primary good or service, which they would then hang outside their door or near their market stall. The mortar and pestle as a symbol for pharmacists; a hammer, anvil, or tongs as a symbol for blacksmiths; and the Rod of Asclepius for those in the medical profession are all examples of symbols from the ancient world that have persisted to the modern era with remarkably similar meanings to their BCE counterparts.

Like modern athletes and celebrities, Roman gladiators and Greek Olympians were commissioned to endorse particular products both in and out of the ring. In fact, a scene from the 2000 film Gladiator’s script was cut where the protagonist Maximus endorsed a particular brand of olive oil, purportedly because modern audiences would have, ironically, found it too far-fetched.

Of course, merchants across the ancient world would also get the attention of passersby through a tactic as old as commerce itself: shouting (or hiring criers to shout) at potential customers and hawking their wares. Today, being accosted by a stranger trying to get you to sign a petition, attend a local event, or come into their establishment is not an uncommon occurrence in even the smallest of towns — and chances are good you’ve even had criers arrive at your very doorstep for similar reasons, like changing your cable or internet service provider.

Digital Marketing: A Modern Take on Ancient Practices

Subsequent technological developments, from the printing press to radio and television, have only increased the efficiency and reach (i.e. invasiveness) of techniques that have been utilized for thousands of years. Even the internet, for all its marvels and paradigm-shifts, has really only changed the context of ancient practices. In fact, if you envision the internet as a physical location, not much has changed at all.

Sites use pop-up ads or, even more annoyingly, automatically enabled sound and video to catch the attention of visitors. Celebrities endorse their favorite products (or their own products) on social media and blogs. Display ads on sites and paid ads in search results offer prime real-estate to extol the virtues of your product or service; search engines are the prominently featured surfaces upon which a great deal of traffic will set their eyes. Instead of physical leaflets in our hands, we now have email inboxes that get hounded with spam and junk, the veritable litter of the internet.

There Is Nothing New Under the Sun — Or Is There?

One primary differentiator does exist in online marketing, however: it gives you the power to attract people to your business without being invasive. It’s called inbound marketing, and it allows you to reach people who already need your help, are interested in your business, and/or who may even be totally unaware that they can benefit from what you have to offer. In short, it brings your ideal clientele to you.

Several core strategies for inbound marketing include the following:

  • Content marketing: Creating interesting and helpful content that will rank highly in search results and bring visitors to your site
  • Social media marketing: Engaging with your target audience on the platforms that they visit and utilize most frequently to build brand awareness, trust, and rapport
  • Opt-in email marketing: Allowing site visitors to opt in and receive regular communications from you, such as newsletters, further information about their specific area of interest, and more

All marketing, from ancient to digital, has attempted to engage with people where they are. If you knew where people gathered or if you knew a heavily traveled route, you could put your message in front of more people, which increased your chances of putting that message in front of the right people.

However, instead of going out to interrupt, inconvenience, and accost (whether tangibly or online), the future of effective marketing will center on 3 things:

  1. Preveniently meeting people’s needs in order to attract those who need you the most
  2. Building trust, credibility, and rapport
  3. Becoming part of your clients’ regular routine so you remain at the forefront of their minds throughout the buying cycle.

LaFleur: Inbound Marketing Experts

Here at LaFleur, we not only have an extensive knowledge of ancient history, but are also experts in inbound marketing. From building search-engine-friendly websites for new law firms, healthcare organizations, or businesses to re-aligning and optimizing digital marketing strategies for well-established entities, we have a diverse team of uniquely talented and qualified staff members who will be specifically dedicated to achieving your unique goals and implementing the online marketing strategies that make the most sense based on your unique needs.

If you want to amplify your online presence and get more cases, call LaFleur at (888) 222-1512 today — or fill out our convenient online contact form. We look forward to hearing from you!

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David VandeWaa has spent over a decade teaching writing, literature, and history in high school and college classrooms. His work has been published in academic journals, he has traveled extensively in Europe, and he occasionally posts anecdotes about his experiences on his blog.