Great Moments in Advertising History

Advertising Highlights From 72 A.D. to Present Day

Apple 1984
Apple 1984. Getty Images

Advertising history has had a big influence on our shopping habits and our culture, thrusting products into our lives and creating new social norms. Along the way, some brilliant ideas have advanced the industry and civilization itself. So let's identify some of the great moments in advertising history.

79 A.D.: Billboards in Pompeii

In his 1875 book, A History of Advertising From the Earliest Times, Henry Sampson wrote that billboards of a sort were present in Pompeii in -- 79 A.D.!

"The walls ... are covered with notices. These advertisements, hasty and transitory as they are, bear voluminous testimony as to the state of society, the wants and requirements and the actual standard of public taste of the Romans in that age."

1732: Ben Franklin Invents Art Direction

Franklin gets credit for lots of things. But his least-known invention may be the creating the role of art director. The book, Advertising In America, The First 200 Years, notes that the publisher of Poor Richard's Almanac was the first to put pictures in advertisements, adding eye candy for copy relief. He also understood the power of white space, leaving lots of it around headlines to catch your eye.

1865: P.T. Barnum, Circus Mogul and Copywriter

Barnum's best performance may have been as copywriter, recognizing the value of a well-turned phrase. Waxing poetic about pachyderms and performers, he trumpeted headlines like:

  • "Caravans of Giant Coursing Elephants and Camels"
  • "After an Unbroken Night of Twenty Centuries, the Resplendent Sun of Imperial Roman Pastimes Reappears."

1925: John Caples, Direct Response Pioneer

At just 25-years old, John Caples wrote one of the most successful ads in history. The amazing ROI from "They Laughed When I Sat Down At the Piano, But When I Started to Play!" put direct response advertising on the map.

It also made Caples one of the most sought after and imitated copywriters of his time. He authored five books, regarded as essential reading on the topic of copywriting.

1944: Paul Harvey. Radio advertising finds its voice

Paul Harvey ... was a more than... a radio announcer. He was... a pioneer! His signature pauses -- combined with a florid, often hyperbolic writing style -- generated a loyal audience of 24 million listeners a week. Paul Harvey News aired on 1,600 radio stations. No wonder, then, that sponsors loved "the most listened-to voice in the history of radio." He refined the art of the radio commercial.

1959: Volkswagen, "Think Small"

Volkswagen's campaign ignored everything that made U.S. car ads successful, going on to make the German brand a household name. Rather than boast of power, speed and luxury, this ad spoke of thrift, great gas mileage at "32 miles to the gallon," and easy parallel parking. Showing a tiny VW Beetle against a field of white, with the headline "Think Small", the ad was remarkable for its time -- and all time. It holds the number one spot on the Ad Age Top 100 Advertising Campaigns list.

1984: Apple, "1984" Super Bowl Ad

For an upstart computer company, Orwell's 1984 was the ideal metaphor. Lifeless prisoners attend a brainwashing session, Big Brother barking dogma on a huge gray screen. A young woman, chased by four thought cops, sprints in carrying a sledge hammer. She stops, spins like a discus thrower, and releases the hammer -- shattering the screen, and IBM's dominance.

1993: "Got Milk?"

You know a tag line is brilliant when it gets plagiarized.

But what made the milk campaign work was not just the tag line, but the executions and strategy behind it. When a pair of adorable girl scouts appears at your door bearing cookies, as they do in the billboard version, there's only one thing to ask: "Got Milk?" It treated the beverage as the ideal purchase companion for everything from brownies to peanut butter. Ka-ching!

1996: Larry Page & Sergey Brin launch Google

The world's dominant search engine changed everything in the advertising industry. No longer were customers passive consumers of media. Now the Internet permitted them to search for what interested them, when it interested them. In short order, Google recognized its power and began selling access to its visitors in a number of ways, including versions of keyword ads and banner ads.

2004: Mark Zuckerberg launches Facebook

Beginning as a social toy for Harvard students, it's now one of the most effective ad media.

Who better to suggest products than people who share your interests? (Hint. FB calls them fans.) And along with your fans and friends, no one knows what you like better than the folks at Facebook. Every FB click carries a bit of code merchants can use to generate sales.

2005: Three friends launch a video sharing site, You Tube

You Tube: Upload silly videos to your heart's content.

But after Google bought it in 2006, it's behaving more like a brilliant marketing vehicle, combining the precision of search with the charm of video. As the You Tube promo video says, "target any kind of person, and we have sophisticated tools to help you find them." Which explains why so many big brands have a video or a channel of them. You Tube draws more eyeballs daily than the Super Bowl on its best day.