The History of Advertising

Sell and Spin: A History of Advertising

Produced by Rob Blumenstein (1999)

Film Review

Sell and Spin details the history of advertising, which apparently dates back 3,000 years to a wine ad painted on a wall in ancient Babylon. The documentary’s only weakness is its omission of the important role Edward Bernays, the father of the public relations industry played in incorporating psychological persuasion into advertising (see Edward Bernays: The Father of Water Fluoridation).

In Europe, advertising took a giant leap forward with the invention of the Guttenberg printing press in 1548 and a significant increase in literacy. The first printed ad appeared in 1580 – to promote the sale of books.

Newspapers, the first mass media, contained no ads when they first appeared in England in the early seventeenth century. The first newspaper ads appeared in 1625, alerting readers to the availability of various advertisers’ products. In the US, the first newspaper ad in appeared in the Boston News-Letter in 1704. In 1728, Benjamin Franklin was the first publisher to use images in newspaper ads in the Philadelphia Gazette.

Volney E Palmer created the first advertising agency in 1842. He worked solely for newspaper publishers, helping them find advertisers.

Magazines first accepted advertising after the Civil War. In 1883 the Ladies Home Journal was created as a vehicle for ads aimed at housewives.

In 1869 Wayland Ayer created the first full service advertising agency, writing copy as well as selling ads. Before long, “every orifice of the body was taken over by advertising,” as corporations invented fictitious illnesses and products to cure them. BO (body odor) was invented in 1919 to sell Odorono and halitosis in the 1920s to sell Listerine.

The first radio program was broadcast in 1920, announcing that Harding had won the US presidency. Although most European governments assumed responsibility for broadcasting in the public interest, in the US the private corporations Westinghouse (CBS) and General Electric (NBC) controlled the first radio networks. The first radio ad appeared in 1922.

In 1946, the first TV program was broadcast, and by 1951 there were more than 5 million TVs around the world.

Beginning in the early sixties, advertising agencies began incorporating sophisticated psychological persuasion techniques in their TV ads. According to the filmmakers, this was mainly under the influence of George Gallup, the father of the public opinion poll. Gallup, whose primary focus was the science of persuasion, was ultimately responsible for the major role focus groups and other forms of market research play in product development.

When this documentary was filmed in 1999, Internet advertising was only five years old. Yet advertisers were already tracking us with “cookies” monitoring which websites we visited and to targeting us with specific ads.




2 thoughts on “The History of Advertising

  1. How horrible! I cannot relate to you how much I hate advertising! I just cannot! I don’t need to be told which toilet tissue to buy, which cleaning product to use, what deodorant I need and so forth and so on. And now that our information is being sold, it’s even worse. What we have allowed to happen. SIGH!


  2. I learned to have a healthy distrust of advertising very young, Shelby. When I watched children’s TV, the ads used to instruct us to nag our parents to buy us certain products. I tried that once and got slapped across the face. Thanks for your comment.

    Liked by 1 person

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