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.




Marketing Politicians Through Social Engineering


The Century of the Self is a four part BBC documentary that delves deeply into the work of Edward Bernays, commonly known as the father of public relations. Parts 3 and 4 explore the glorification of selfish consumption after World War II and how Reagan, Thatcher, Clinton and Blair perfected the “politics of self” to win and hold power.

The Century of the Self

BBC Documentary (2005)

Film Review

Part 3 (There’s a Policeman Inside All Our Heads) and Part 4 (Eight People Sipping Wine in Kettering)

Link to Part 1 and 2

The Politics of Self

Following World War II, the CIA hired Sigmund Freud’s nephew Edward Bernays to advise them on controlling the “irrational aggression” of the masses. They were concerned that 49% of US soldiers evacuated from combat had to leave the battlefield for “emotional problems.” Today their condition would be diagnosed as post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).  In the mid-forties, the psychoanalysts who interviewed them diagnosed that they had unresolved conflicts related to their unconscious aggressive and sexual drives.

Convinced these problems were widespread among the greater population, in 1946 the Truman administration championed the passage of the Mental Health Act. The Act funded new guidance centers throughout the US to assist Americans to control and suppress their dangerous unconscious drives.

Meanwhile the public relations industry hired psychoanalysts to set up focus groups to use advertising more effectively to improve consumer demand for corporate products. These early focus groups employed psychoanalytic techniques to help advertisers improve sales by secretly appealing to unconscious needs and insecurities.

Students Opt for Self-Liberation

The anti-Vietnam War movement of the late sixties quickly morphed into a broader anti-capitalist movement that attacked corporations for corrupting government and brainwashing the public. This movement was strongly influenced by Wilhelm Reich and Herbert Marcuse, who had split with Sigmund and Anna Freud over their belief that unconscious aggressive and sexual drives had to be suppressed and controlled. Reich and Marcuse taught that it was repression itself that distorted unconscious aggressive and sexual drives and made them dangerous.

In 1970 the National Guard massacre of unarmed Kent State students in 1970 split in this anti-capitalist movement. For the most part middle class student supporters shifted their focus to “liberating” themselves rather than organizing for political change.

In addition to widespread experimentation with illicit drugs, this shift led to a surge of self-improvement initiatives and therapies, collectively called the Human Potential Movement.

Values and Lifestyle Marketing

Employing computer technology and psychologists trained in self-improvement techniques, the public relations industry adapted to this new individualism and preoccupation with self-expression with “values and lifestyle marketing.”

One of their main strategies was to blur the line between advertising and journalism by incorporating three key messages into news reporting: selfishness is good, the needs of individuals are more important than the needs of society and that only business can properly satisfy individual needs.

The Politics of Self

This deliberate promotion of selfishness and individualism cut across social classes and was a key factor in persuading blue collar voters to vote for Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher – and programs that significantly hurt their own economic interests.

Ultimately it was Bill Clinton and Tony Blair who perfected this new “politics of self” by incorporating focus groups and lifestyle marketing into their political campaigns. Their advisers convinced them that voters had to be regarded as consumers and that the secret to getting elected was by catering (i.e. pandering) to voters’ unconscious primitive selfish desires. It was a hell of a way to run government and would cause the Democrats to get the boot in 2000 and the Labour Party in 2010.