Ads are ubiquitous in today’s world. The cultural impact of advertising and consumption pervade into every aspect of our lives. Advertising and consumer-lifestyle became an American way of life following World War Two.

This series discusses the history of advertising and the cultural impact of advertising and consumption. We will also closely examine different eras of American history in regards to advertising. Hopefully the exploration improves consumer and media literacy for our audience along the way.

Advertising dates back to ancient times

An old piece of Papyrus believed to be from 3000 BCE. Ancient advertising.
Papyrus of Shem, 3000 BCE, currently displayed in the British Museum.

The history of advertising is long and winding and pre-dates modern civilization. Advertisements began with criers yelling into the crowded marketplaces to visit businesses. Some of the first printed advertisements hailed from Ancient Egypt. What could be considered ‘billboard’ advertising was an effective way for governments to post laws and regulations on the stone walls of the cities. Egyptian obelisks still display religious and political propaganda still today.

The ‘papyrus of Shem,’ which currently resides in the British Museum, may be the first printed advertisement. This ragged piece of papyrus (a plant-based paper) dates back to 3000 BCE in Thebes, Egypt. On the papyrus, a shopkeep offers a piece of gold to anybody who could find and return his slave, Shem, to the store. The owner also subtly refers to his business as the ‘store with the greatest fabrics,’ or something of the like, advertising his shop.

As the story goes, they never found Shem.

An advertisement from the Song Dynasty in China.
“Page advertisement from Jinan Liu’s Fine Needle Shop, Shandong Province, Song Dynasty.”

The history of advertising in China also precedes modern history, according to an article on the University of Washington website. Dating back to the Song dynasty (960-1276), shops made signs with pictures and words to denote what was inside. In an ad for an ancient needle shop, a handbill depicts a rabbit holding a needle.

As time drew on, advertising became consistently more prevalent. In the Middle Ages, businesses posted picture ads to appeal to an illiterate populace. The development of the printing press in 1439 led to the proliferation of mass-distribution of newspapers, books, and flyers. Thomas J Barratt, the “father of modern advertising,” began the earliest-known systematic advertising campaign in 1865 in London to sell soap.

Advertising becomes ubiquitous in America

Revolutionary-period America saw a progression of technology, literacy, and printing, leading to a greater distribution of printed advertising. This article in Ad Age, a marketing and media publication, details a timeline of American advertising since 1704.

1704 The first newspaper advertisement, an announcement seeking a buyer for an Oyster Bay, Long Island, estate, is published in the Boston News-Letter.
1873 The first convention of advertising agents is held in New York.

Frank Munsey drops the price of Munsey’s Magazine to 10 cents and the cost of subscriptions to one dollar. This marked the first attempt at keeping a magazine afloat by advertising revenue rather than newsstand sales.

1925 The National Better Business Bureau organizes.

The War Advertising Council [helps] prepare voluntary advertising campaigns for wartime efforts. The council garners $350 million in free public service messages.

Patriotic postwar promotion

With the ending of the second World War came an economic boom in America. Production for the war stopped, leaving room for the production of consumer goods. Suburbanization and the nuclear family dawned the era of white picket fences, 2.5 kids and consumer buying power. Life was good and there was money to spend, after over a decade of frugality and rations. Home appliances, cars, and TVs were selling tremendously and allowed families to modernize their homes quickly.

This shift led to a major shift in cultural values. “The American consumer was praised as a patriotic citizen in the 1950s,” according to a PBS article titled ‘The Rise of American Consumerism.’

This cigarette ad shows actress Barbara Stanwyck with L&M Filter Tip cigarettes
Cigarettes ads in the 50s had a surprising amount of references to doctors.

Around this time, intangibles were sold to the American people. Appliances meant family values, cars related to identities and cigarettes marked class, masculinity, or fame.

Today, the effects of progressive consumption and advertising continue to draw onward. Perfume and deodorant ads rarely give the buyer any idea of what the product smells like, but rather use advertisements to sell unattainable and intangible ideas, attacking our insecurities. They sell us narrow ideas about masculinity, femininity, fame, wealth or whatever it may be. Advertisements build off of our fears, anxieties and our social status and relations.

Resurgence of consumerism in modern era 

After the attack on September 11, this idea of consumption as an American virtue made a resurgence. Two weeks after the attack, President George W. Bush said “Get down to Disney World in Florida … Take your families and enjoy life, the way we want it to be enjoyed.”

Most noteworthy, consumerism meant patriotism and defined the American way of life. If a presidential speech isn’t the greatest advertisement, I’m not sure what is.

In the next installment of this series, we’ll dig deeper into this effect of consumerism and advertising on American culture, and discuss the ubiquity of advertisement in our daily lives.


  1. How’s the lame suburb treating you? Lol. At least you have an office now where you can write really good photopig articles. It’s awesome that advertising possibly started in Egyptian times. That also too is when cosmetology is supposed to have started is with the Egyptians. Nice work JOEH

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