25 Feb, 2020
This informal CPD article “Origination” was provided by The Industry School, providers of innovative marketing workshops for the creative communications industry.
“If it plese any man spirituel or temporel to bye ony pyes of two and thre commemoraios of Salisburi use empryntid after the forme of this preset lettre whiche ben wel and truly correct, late hym to come to Westmonester in to the almonry at the reed pale and he shal have them good chepe. Supplicio stet cedula [please do not remove this handbill].”
Possibly not the most persuasive (or comprehensible) piece of copy you’ll read today but this plug for William Caxton’s book, Pye, is still significant. It was the first ever printed advertisement in the English language. (And yes, it probably was edited and proofread – English really did look like this in the 1470s.)
The Chinese are credited with inventing printing around 600AD when they came up with a methodology that involved applying symbols onto wooden blocks, then pressing them onto paper. If you’ve ever wondered why the media are collectively referred to as ‘the press’, wonder no more.
A breakthrough in printing
Print’s big breakthrough, however, didn’t come until 1455. This was when German businessman Johannes Gutenberg created moulds for every letter, character, number and punctuation mark out of metal and with them, developed a printing press capable of volume output. This opened the door for mass distribution of print material. The first large-scale product of Gutenberg’s creation was a 200-strong print run of Latin Bibles in 1455 – all of which were sold in advance. Books soon followed. Advertising was close behind.
It was a few centuries before advertising became an industry. The first known advertising agency, William Taylor, was formed in 1786, over 300 years after William Caxton’s pioneering piece of content. In 1840, advertising as a profession arrived in North America when Volney B. Palmer established himself as an ‘agent’. Palmer bought up swathes of advertising space in newspapers across the US and Canada, then sold it to advertisers at profitable rates. Palmer had no input into the making of the adverts themselves.
The birth of an advertising giant
The advertising giant we know as JWT, or J. Walter Thompson, took this concept to the next level. In 1868, James Walter Thompson joined a business that sold advertising space in religious journals. Eleven years later, and now its top salesman, Thompson bought the business and renamed it the James Walter Thompson Company. His vision? To not only sell the space, but to make the ads as well. Thompson recruited artists and writers, thus assembling advertising’s first creative department.
The growth of Advertising
As advertising continued to grow, its influence impressed national governments eager to win the hearts of minds of populations throughout two world wars. Propaganda departments borrowed heavily from the advertising industry’s expertise in the art of persuasion.
As the world recovered from World War II, advertising came of age. Released from the shackles of rations and austerity, consumers, first in the US, then gradually across Europe and beyond, realised that goods were no longer as scarce in peacetime as in wartime. Television, radio and cinema had growing audiences, so were increasingly fertile grounds for advertisers, alongside print and outdoor. The years spanning the early 1960s to the late 1980s are known as the Golden Age of Advertising.
Today, of course, online accounts for much of the advertising we see and hear. Print, however, remains as relevant as ever and a huge part of a global industry of some 509,953 businesses in which 1,900,238 people generated $234 billion in 2019 (source: IBISWorld).
How many of them, we wonder, can trace their share of the advertising pie to Caxton’s advert?
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