Around 2.6 million years ago, humans started using tools, but all we could do was point and grunt if we wanted to tell others. Then after what must have been a frustrating 2.5 million years, we invented speech, and word of mouth marketing was born. This is the oldest and still the most influential form of marketing – word of mouth still influences 78% of purchase decisions – but we didn’t stop there. Fast forward 62,000 years and we learned to draw, which for the first time let us advertise without being there in person.
Writing came 34,500 years after, which gave us adcopy to go with our artwork. Ads were primarily propaganda, carved into prominent monuments, telling everyone how great our local ruler or god was. However there's plenty of evidence that businesses advertised and built brands as far back as antiquity. For example Scauras fish sauce, advertised in Pompeii, circa 35 B.C. (preserved in ash from the volcanic explosion), was well known throughout the Mediterranean at the time. Even Aristotle’s teaching on persuasion echoes the marketing funnel taught today: Exordium (Attention), Narratio (Interest), Confirmation (Desire), Peroratio (Action). The ancients knew how to advertise.
The invention of the printing press in 1450 changed the economics of publishing, making mass communication via print advertising economically viable. The cost of making copies came down so dramatically, that entire newspaper and magazine industries arose, funded through advertising alone. Now successful advertisements could be distributed more widely, we entered the era of mass communication, which only served to accelerate the rate of change.
Radio ads came next in 1895, which were more engaging, and still make up a significant share of advertising dollars today. Now we could hear speeches, recordings, music directly from the source, without needing it to compressed into lossy formats like text. This was an engaging format, but it was nothing compared to the advent of TV. Now we could not just hear but see for ourselves, a far better form of information transmission. A picture may be worth a thousand words, but a video shows 24 frames per second.
Mass communication via TV, print, radio, upended entire industries. The economics of advertising meant that for the first time we could have national brands, and the ‘Golden Age of Advertising’ in the 1960s was when we really learned to build them. Corporate giants like Proctor & Gamble, Coca Cola, and Unilever consolidated power, using economies of scale to maximize profits, while reinvesting those profits into more advertising to increase scale. This advertising-industrial complex generated much of the economic growth we saw in the west, as advertising distributed new products, which in turn funded more advertising.
Finally the balance of power swung back towards decentralization with the growth of the Internet. Online marketing digitized everything, turning print into banner ads, classifieds into search, radio into podcasts, and TV into streaming video. Following Google’s lead, buying ads on these platforms were done self-service rather than through an agency, democratizing access and breaking the hold of the big advertising agencies. Social media networks arose to make everyone into their own publisher, eliminating gatekeepers and generating vastly more content to advertise against. Even small businesses could reach millions of people, without anyone’s permission.
Whenever we invent a breakthrough communications technology, advertising shortly follows, until the channel gets saturated – ruined by marketers – and early adopters move to the next shiny new thing. The first online banner ads had a click through rate of 78%, whereas today the average is 0.05%. This memetic Red Queen’s race requires marketers to innovate simply to stand still, as consumers become “banner blind” to our advertising, and we constantly test new messages to find something that gets noticed and resonates, eventually following the eyeballs to emerging channels.
What doesn’t change is our tolerance to ads. Despite all this change and progress, advertising has consistently hovered around 1% of GDP, implying a natural limit to our tolerance of ads, regardless of the channel. This is because our biological brains are not so different from what we had at the start of this story. Our memes might evolve faster with each new technology, but evolution happens over millions of years. As Churchill laments, “The brain of a modern man does not differ in essentials from that of the human beings who fought and loved here millions of years ago”.
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Winston Churchill, futurist