Antiquity explores the dawn of time to the medieval ageCategory: History of Advertising
Advertising: Any offering of products, services or ideas through the medium of public communication. Advertising is the practice of gaining the attention of a prospective customer, then enticing them to engage in a mutually favorable exchange: i.e., your money for these sneakers.
35,000 – 4000 BC: Early Africans and Europeans made cave paintings.
15,000-10,000 BC Famous cave in Lascaux, France. Lascaux is located at the foothill of the Pyrenees Mountains in southwest France. In 1940, four exploring teenagers climbed down a hole that had been made in the ground by a fallen pine tree and discovered the cave that held the fabulous wall paintings. Paintings of men with bird heads, Cows, horses, bulls and deer in reds, blues and yellows.
These pictographs have been found throughout the world in various stages of sophistication. Some are carved on rocks. Many are quite sophisticated and accurate. These are the beginnings of written communication.
Around 8,000 BC, humans stopped wandering, following crops and animals, and started settling down into villages. This was primarily due to developments in farming — once people learned how to plant and harvest crops, they could stay put and eat. The domestication of animals also began.
In Mesopotamia (the valley between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers), Babylonia became the world’s first real metropolis, with a population approaching 1 million people. That’s where Nebuchadnezzar built the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, which is one of the Seven Wonders of The Ancient World.
1000 years before Nebuchadnezzar, Hammurabi was King of Babylonia from 1792 – 1750 B.C. In the early years of his reign, Hammurabi supervised traditional activities like building repair, digging canals and fighting wars. Later, he organized the Code of Hammurabi, which is an 8-foot high inscribed slab with 282 laws in 21 columns, systematically arranged under a variety of subjects. The clean grid format depicts humans’ need for order, graphically and in life. The Code of Hammurabi is the first set of its kind. He sorted his laws into groups such as family, labor, personal property, real estate, trade, and business. This format of organization was emulated by civilizations of the future. For example, Semitic cultures succeeding Hammurabi’s rule used some of the same laws that were included in Hammurabi’s code. Hammurabi’s method of thought is evident in present-day societies which are influenced by his code. Hammurabi based his code on principles like, the strong should not injure the weak, and that punishment should fit the crime. As for punishment, the code was severe, prescribing an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. Although the punishments were different than those of today, the authority of the state (government) is similar. In the code, crimes punishable by death required a trial in front of a bench of judges. Included in these crimes were bigamy, incest, kidnapping, adultery and theft. There were also laws similar to today. For example, a husband who wished to divorce his wife, was required to pay alimony and child support. By creating the world’s first set of organized laws, Hammurabi constituted a model set of moral codes for other civilizations to duplicate.
With the rise of settled people (villages), there was naturally a growth in property ownership, trade specialization, and the development of brands for property. Priests and scribes kept records on clay tablets of inventories, taxes, etc.
Broadcast advertising. Today, broadcast means TV and radio. Then, it meant somebody yelling Babylonian merchants used to hire criers to advertise goods for sale to people walking by. Crying is the most significant form of attention-getting, which is the first thing necessary in a sale. Demonstration, argument & comparison are forms of persuasion used after one has a person’s attention.
We’ve found bricks with inscriptions of names of the temples. They were used for the king who ordered the construction. In a way, these are the earliest advertisements — the kings are promoting themselves. This is not unlike the inscribed cornerstone of modern buildings. Archeologists have found inscriptions that advertised the services of an ointment dealer, scribe and shoemaker. Mesopotamian cylinder seals, which are still in use, had images on the sides and bottom to identify the owner. People wore them on a string around their wrists. They were even used as burglar alarms. The owner would mark clay across their door and know that someone had broken in if the If the seal was broken. Mesopotamia (and Babylon) were eventually conquered by the Persians and heir cities fell into ruin.
Egyptians picked up the use of cylinder seals and beginnings of writings from the Sumerians. Unlike the Sumerians, though, whose picture-writing form evolved into cuneiform, the Egyptians stuck with hieroglyphics. Hieroglyphics means “sacred writing” in Greek and “the god’s words” in Egyptian. Hieroglyphics was used from 3100 BC to 400 AD. Nobody could crack the code until a big black slab was found in 1799 by Napoleon’s army. The Rosetta Stone. It had the same thing written in three languages: Greek, spoken Egyptian, and hieroglyphics. This stone enabled the translation of hieroglyphics. Hieroglyphics were highly designed. They were often in color. Sentences could be written from left to right, up to down, or vice versa.
Entrepreneurs in ancient Egypt used to hire town criers to announce ship and cargo arrivals. The crier would announce in colorful detail the cargo, where it came from and the difficulties of the sea passage.
Egyptians developed papyrus from a plant of that name that grew in the Nile River.
They also developed The Book of the Dead, which often evolved into complex illustrated manuscripts. It was often painted onto coffins and sarcophaguses and accompanied the deceased on their journey in the afterlife.
The Chinese civilization developed parallel and independently of European. Before they had paper, everything was inscribed onto stone tablets. One historical record was 13 acres large, with stones arranged like tombstones. This was eventually replaced with writings on scrolls, then folded papers. The Chinese inventions in printing and paper eventually reached Europe.
The Chinese invented their own form of moveable type, where the characters would be on a huge rotating Lazy Susan.
The Chinese written language is comprised of logograms, which dates back to 1800 BC. Each of the 44,000 characters is a symbol that stands for something. The author (or artist) places great emphasis on each brush stroke, dot, line. Structure, thickness, kerning and leading are all critical.
Some early design forms & advertising
Trademarks are found as seals on vases and wine amphora. (An amphora is an ancient Greek jar or vase that has a large oval body, narrow cylindrical neck and two handles that rise almost to mouth level).
Merchants hung signs over their stores that represented the symbols of their trades. There were also announcements for rewards for the return of runaway slaves. They painted signs over their shops — like a pig outside a butcher store. Wine stores traditionally had a picture of a bush in front of them.
There’s an old proverb “Good wine needs no bush,” which means a good product will sell itself. This is partially true … but good publicity will help even more than word-of-mouth can.
Greek stores also had sandwich boards in front of them as well.
Perhaps posters appeared, too, as in Rome. But both signs and posters were perishable and far more restricted than in Rome.
We haven’t been so lucky with other treasures of antiquity, especially writings, which were usually composed on papyrus, a pulpy wood byproduct. The humid Mediterranean climate decomposed the papyrus, so today we have, for instance, less than 10 of the nearly 100 plays Sophocles wrote. Most writings from antiquity have been found in Egypt, where the dry climate and sand has preserved them. In Central Park is an obelisk called Cleopatra’s Needle. It has decomposed more in 100 years here than it did in 5,000 years in the desert.
Criers & heralds promoted political messages, auctions, made lost & found announcements, and more. They were hired for their pleasing voice, and were sometimes accompanied by musicians. They usually advertised slaves or animals for sale.
Inscriptions were affixed to lead sheets calling for vengeance of the gods on people who found lost articles and didn’t return them. These sheets are now in the British Museum.
After Alexander the Great, Hellenistic Greece gave the Mediterranean a degree of cultural and commercial unity — the “commonwealth.” But Rome gave it political unity, peace (Pax Romana), good roads, pirate-free seas, a common currency, etc. Despite an “old-money” adherence to self-sufficient, non-mercenary, agricultural-based wealth, the state had a laissez-faire (“Leave Them Be”) attitude and under these circumstances commerce really took off.
A lot of commerce was conducted by ex-slaves (“freedmen”). An estimated 500,000 slaves were freed between 80-50 BC alone. They were often foreigners who lacked Roman scruples about making a buck, and they ended up composing a large part of the rising middle class.
Advertising, helped by wide literacy, flourished. And what happened in Rome probably also went on to a lesser degree throughout the Empire until about 250 AD.
Types of Advertising
There were hawkers, heralds and auctioneers. Auctioneers sometimes were wealthy wheeler-dealers, pawning everything from catfish to art in exchange for a cut — not unlike Sotheby’s and Christie’s auction houses today.
“While Eumolpus was talking privately to Bargates, a crier came into the house with a municipal slave and quite a small crowd of other people, shook a torch which gave out more smoke than light, and made this proclamation: ‘Lost recently in the public baths, a boy aged about sixteen, hair curly, looks soft, of attractive appearance, answers to the name of Giton. A reward of a thousand pieces will be paid to any person willing to bring him back or indicate his whereabouts.’” — Petronius
“… think of the hair remover, continually giving vent to his shrill and penetrating cry in order to advertise his presence, never silent unless it be while he is plucking various cries of the man selling drinks, and the one selling sausages and the other selling pastries… each publicizing his wares with a distinctive cry of his own.” — Seneca Moral Letters.
“If you can’t turn an honest penny, you might as well accept the title — and income — of an auctioneer — the pander… spawned in an unknown brothel… join in the salesroom battles, flog lots under the hammer to a crowd of bidders — wine jars, three-legged stools, bookcases, cupboards, remaindered plays by nonentities on stale mythological theme.” — Juvenal Satire
There were shop signs of stone or terra cotta, sometimes painted, set into walls of shops. The phallus, or symbol of life, indicated a bakery; a flying cherub with a shoe was a cobbler.
POSTED AND PAINTED ADS. The word poster means something put on a post. Romans posted signs made of bronze, copper and early forms of paper at crossroads and public squares. The Acta Diurna (Acts of the Day, or Daily News) began in 59 BC. Posted throughout the city as well as distributed, it carried social and political news, trials and executions, highlights of sporting and theatrical events, shipping news, etc Painted ads in red and black promoting a gladiator contest were found in Herculaneum. Pliny even mentions the painter Callades, who was especially proficient in promoting the contests.
Herculaneum was a Roman resort town and Pompeii was a thriving, affluent port city near Naples. Both were buried by the volcanic eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 AD. The hot lava and ashes preserved the ruins magnificently: facial expressions of people frozen in mid flight, paint on the walls, as well as expertly preserved pieces of their society, from cups and statues to such oddities as loaded dice. More than 1,500 political ads and notices have been excavated from Pompeii. Many have an advertising tone of voice. There are menacing ones, angry ones, and tirades by private citizens about the proliferation of posters.
“The feltworkers want Vettius Firmus as aedile (aedile was an elected political post).”
“Proclus, support Sabinus and then he’ll support you.”
“Vote for Quintus Postumus, the moderate candidate.”
“On the property of Aurelianus Faustinianus is a bathhouse. You’ll bathe in the style of the city (modo urbico), and every refinement is assured.” — Pompeii
“Once one of my hams is cooked and set before a customer, before he tastes it, he licks the saucepan in which it was cooked.” — An Inn in Pompeii
“Traveler, going from here to the 12th tower, there Sarinus keeps a tavern. This is to request you to enter. Farewell.”
“Innkeeper, may you drown in your own sewer-wine.” — Found on a tavern wall
“The city is too rich. My advice: a share-out of treasury funds.” —Calling for a tax rebate
“Blondie, that’s me. I can’t stand the dark ones, but I love ‘em if I have to.” — Found on a wall inside a brothel. Speaks for itself.
“Weather permitting, the gladiatorial troop of Suetius Certius will fight at Pompeii on the 30th of July. There will be a hunting spectacle, awnings to keep off the sun, and perfume sprinklings.”
July is named after Julius Caesar, and August is named after his successor Augustus Caesar. August has 31 days because July had 31 days and the Roman Senate didn’t want to give Augustus fewer days than Julius, so they took a few days from February.
“The philosopher Seneca is the only writer to condemn the damn games.” — Found on the wall of the gladiators’ barracks.
The gladiator contests in the Coliseum were savage, deadly affairs. The floor of the Coliseum was sand because it soaked up the blood. The contests were hugely popular. There are even gate numbers (in Roman numerals) at the various entrances to the Coliseum to help people find their seats, exactly like stadiums today. And, just like today, every town wanted a big stadium to help give them prominence. Many Coliseums were built in small cities throughout Italy. They were usually way too large to support the populace, forcing to the citizens to pay huge taxes to pay for them. “A notice was fastened to the doorpost: ‘NO SLAVE TO GO OUT OF DOORS EXCEPT BY THE MASTER’S ORDERS. PENALTY, ONE HUNDRED STRIPES.’ … on the left hand as you went in, not far from the porter’s office, a great dog on a chain was painted on the wall, and over him was written in block capitals, ‘BEWARE OF THE DOG.’” — Petronius, Satyricon.
“I only sell garlands to lovers.” — A florist shop near Nimes.
“When his business was failing, and he was afraid his creditors might guess that he was going bankrupt, he advertised a sale in this fashion: ‘Caius Julius Proculus will offer for sale some articles for which he has no further use.’” — Petronius
Roman Letter Developments
The western alphabet and code of written communication traces its roots to the Roman Empire. Romans developed the Square Capitals (4th – 8th centuries) and Rustic Capitals (6th century). Square Capitals look like modern capital letters. Rustic Capitals were basically a condensed version of Square Capitals. Everything was in upper case … lower case letters didn’t emerge for another 700 years.
Serifs emerged. Serifs are the small marks and lines extending from the ends of letters. Nobody knows exactly how they emerged … whether they were final marks made by a stonemason’s chisel, or by a signwriter’s brush at the end of a stroke.
The emperor Trajan erected a giant column that in 114 AD to commemorate his exploits. The text that’s carved in upward spiral is one of the wonders of the ancient graphic design world.