Lessons from the past: Advertising in the ancient world

No point trying to hide from it - the history of advertising has its roots deep in ancient history. We take a look at some ads from antiquity

By Jeremy Lee

“We buy high quality steel rods and make fine quality needles that are ready for use at home in no time."

While it probably won't win any creative awards, as examples of brevity go the copy on this Chinese print commercial for needles takes some beating. It contains all the relevant product information and benefits in one pithy sentence, and was found on a bronze printing plate allowing for mass distribution.

What is more remarkable is that it dates from the Song dynasty (960-1279 CE) and is credited as being the earliest known example of print advertising. Incidentally, it was accompanied by an image of a rabbit holding one its needles - a logo for the brand.

While the history of brand trademarks in the UK is more commonly known (in 1876 Bass Brewery's red triangle - still in use today - famously became the first registered trademark issued by the British government), their prevalence stretches back to ancient history. With literacy levels low and without media channels to exploit, these were probably the earliest examples of marketing.

Makers' marks dating back to 1300 BCE have been found in India, and they were a commonplace way for manufacturers to denote their products in other early civlizations.

In ancient Greece, and later throughout the Roman Empire, stamps were used on bricks, pottery, storage containers as well as on fine ceramics and the fact that they were later found in archaeological deposits suggests they may have helped smoothe trade passage.

But there's also tantalising evidence that craftspeople also used brand marks to denote a certain pride in their manufacture - a Greek vase manufactured around 490 BCE bears the inscription "Sophilos painted me".

One bitter Greek potter, Euthymides, even took the time to advertise how much better his work was than one of his rivals. He wrote “better than Euphronios could ever have done” on one of his vases.

As well as signing their work, some potters went further still. In the Louvre, there is a jug from ancient Greece showing two men leading horses and between which some text has been written: “Buy me, you will be getting a bargain.”

Incidentally, this was also a theme of the BBC series Detectorists Christmas 2023 special, where Lance finds a reliquary with the Anglo-Saxon inscription " GREGORIUS MEC HEHT GEWYRCAN" ("Gregory had me made") - which is a nod to the real life archaeological find of the Alfred Jewel.

While 'modern' advertising is widely thought to have been forged following the industrial revolution of the nineteenth century, which brought married mass production techniques with the beginnings of mass communications and widespread literacy, people have always sought to sell their services, undercut their competitors or show the benefits of the product that they produce over that of their competitors.

As well as handwritten or printed leaflets and posters (similar to the needle ad from the Song dynasty) that can be found in modern advertising, outdoor ads were common in ancient civilization.

Most people are familiar with the carved phalluses of Pompeii that denoted and allegedly gave directions to the lupanar, or brothel.

But their prevalence may have been circumstantial - the Romans had a predisposition for carving phalluses on rocks.

What is indisputable is the advertising inside the Pompeii brothels, with illustrated scenes found of sexual acts advertising the specialities of the resident sex workers, many of whom were slaves.

While the advertising of sex services ("the oldest profession in the world") in the ancient world might titillate modern audiences, it was also used for more mundane and everyday uses.

Sellers in Egypt, Greece, and Rome would paint or carve advertisements onto prominently featured surfaces such as the sides of buildings or large rocks near paths with heavy foot traffic.

Image-based advertising that depicted their primary good or service would also hang outside their door or near their market stall. Some of these have survived into modernity - as well as symbols like hammers and tongs for blacksmiths, the Rod of Asclepius (a serpent-entwined rod wielded by the Greek god of the same name) is a widely-recognized symbol for medicine and health care.

Slave-owners in antiquity also advertised, creating leafletting campaigns or outdoor ads that offered financial reward for help in finding their missing slaves. This Egyptian example was written on papyrus offering a prize for anyone who returned the slave to the army barracks.

While the finder of the missing slave might have received a reward, the slave themselves would have got a far harsher punishment.

And finally, no feature on classical advertising should miss out on politicians to sit alongside the pantheon of brothel-goers, sex workers and slave-owners. Roman politicians were famous for sponsoring games in order to curry favour with the populace but they were also avid users of outdoor advertising.

Games were briefly banned by the Senate after several got out of control but upon their reinstatement, prospective politicians made clear who was footing the bill. This inscription was also found on the walls in Pompeii: "Twenty pairs of gladiators of Decimus Lucretius Satrius Valens, perpetual priest of Nero Caesar, son of Augustus, and ten pairs of gladiators of Decimus Lucretius Valens will fight at Pompeii on 4 April. There will be a hunt."

Like many of the lessons we can learn from ancient civilization, if only politicians were as honest these days.


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