From Ancient Memphis to Modern New York. A History of Outdoor Advertising.

    Our cities are hard to imagine without outdoor advertising. While walking down the street, you take all these colors of the rainbow for granted. As if it all had been there since ancient times.



    However, the modern outdoor ads have started to take shape as little as a couple hundred years ago, which is quite little by the civilization’s standards. This had been preceded by a long process of development and technological evolution…


    Antique Outdoor Ads

    The most ancient origins of outdoor advertising coincide with the birth of writing. Cave paintings and inscriptions must have included the first messages we dare call advertisements. However, it is the following phrase carved on a stone in Memphis that is unofficially considered the first advertising message: “I, Rino from the island of Crete, interpret dreams by the will of gods.”


    The development of trade in the antiquity was accompanied by a heyday for advertising. Messages on where to find “bread” and “circuses” would be created as graffiti, carved on walls, designed in the form of sculptures. “The bath washes according to the city custom and offers all the services for Faustina’s income,” “20 pairs of gladiators are to fight in Pompeii 6, 5, 4, 3 days before and on the eve of the Ides of April…” The lava-flooded Pompeii retained over 1500 advertising messages on tablets, stones and walls. The structure, design and information presentation of antique advertising proves that Romans and Greeks understood very well the definition of the target audience, selling design, advertising campaign without knowing any scientific terms – sometimes better than many contemporaries from the 21 century. It is comical to understand at the same time that editing an advertising layout today is clicking with the mouse a couple of times. Just think how hard it was to correct an advertising tablet which could take months to make.


    In antiquity, society would already raise the issue of some advertising changing and even spoiling the appearance of the streets. Rome’s authorities started allocating dedicated places for outdoor advertising – “albums”. These were bleached, checkered walls. Advertisements and news would be placed on “albums”.


    From the Middle Ages till Renaissance

    In the Middle Ages (5 to 15 century), religious worldview penetrated all the spheres of life deeply. Advertising was no exception either. An advertising text was more effective if it included religious additions. The development of outdoor advertising slowed down notably, just like the whole life of society during the era. However, signs were widespread – for instance, badge signs designed in the form whatever was sold in some shop or other. A high boot sign would grace the top of a

    shoemaker’s shop; a seller of fish would indicate their trade with a fish sign. For the illiterate medieval populace, who were unable to read, such signs were of particular importance. It is logical that the key parameter of a sign’s effectiveness was its size. In medieval Europe, a sign is also an extra landmark for people in the city.

    Cities grew gradually, and from the 11 and 12 centuries onwards, advertising was becoming ever more topical. Besides merchant guilds, information influence would be applied by the clergy, the townsfolk and knights. Many needed to communicate information to the masses, to affect some situation or other. Marketing, a term so alien to the era, was developing with advertising following suit. Artists, engravers and sculptors would often proceed to outdoor advertising after decorating temples, which was their main task…

    In mid-15 century, Johann Gutenberg invented the printing press. That event gave an impulse to a new period in outdoor advertising. Also, that became the start of the era of magazine and newspaper advertising, which is starting to decline in early 21 century because of the heyday of the Internet and information technology. It should be pointed out that in China, characters would be typed as early as the 11 century. This, however, did not become a start for a “boom” of printing houses in the East.





    The first printed advertisement dates back to 1477. William Caxton printed a poster in the English language and set it up on one of London’s churches. In this way, he tried to increase the sales of prayer books. Throughout the second half of the 15 century, printing houses were emerging in Italy, Switzerland, France, Belgium, Hungary and Poland. Towards the end of the century, they would emerge in Czechia, England, Austria, Denmark, Sweden and Portugal. At the end of the century, there were already over 200 printing offices in some 70 cities of Europe. It was then when the printed prospectuses, playbills, catalogs, price lists, “flyers” and printed ads we know today emerged…


    Outdoor Advertising in the Modern Era

    It was only with the advent of the 19 century that the world of outdoor advertising gradually became similar to that of today. This was facilitated by two mutually related factors. Firstly, it was the heyday of capitalism. Trade was gaining momentum, competition was increasing in markets, manufacturers’ warehouses were overfilling. For the first time in history, marketing became vital for a number of markets and products. Printed and outdoor advertising became its key tools. Secondly, the development of technologies allowed implementing these tools, made them cheaper and more effective. In 1796, lithography was invented in Bohemia. In this method of printing, paint is transferred from the flat mold to paper. It was the first new printing technique in 300 years. The previous

    one, the engraving, emerged as early as the 15 century.


    Posters and playbills were becoming widespread. The first instance of billboard marketing was the advertisement of Jared Bell’s Circus in 1835. Despite the fact that the posters placed by Bell bore little resemblance to modern outdoor advertising, this first campaign was quite successful.

    Posters and bills were emerging in many public places: restaurants, bars, shops and cafes. Street pillars, where advertising posters were placed, emerged. Advertising on transport was originating. Towards the end of the 19 century, advertising boards emerged in West Virginia. It should be pointed out that the founding of the Bill Posters international association (now the Outdoor Advertising Association of America) became an important milestone in the development of outdoor ads.


    Shop window advertising was also developing actively in the 19 century. The more products were represented in the shop window, the better it was considered to be. During evening time, shop windows were lit up with electricity and kerosene lamps. Sometimes, the highlighting was combined, for instance, if electricity lit better, whereas the kerosene lamp heated the shop window and cleaned it of snow during the cold winter evenings. It is interesting that pharmacies had a signature of their own – multicolored glass spheres that were lit with gas lamps.


    Just like in the Middle Ages, signs could also be designed in the form of the goods/services sold. However, their quality and complexity already were on a completely different level. For instance, a watch shop sign could be designed in the form of a big watch made of wood, tin plate, tin, glass or other materials. The parts of the watches would be thoroughly worked with the owner’s surname hammered out on the face. Furthermore, the first “sandwich people”, who would carry two advertising boards bound together and hanging at the front and at the rear, emerged in the streets of Europe and North America.


    The Modern Heyday of Outdoor Advertising


    Outdoor advertising was entering the 20 century at a fast pace, confidently and boldly. The USA were at the forefront of development, followed by Western Europe and the Russian Empire. A particular spur was given to outdoor ads by Ford’s Model T. The assembly line and the car manufacturing boom lent a new sense to this marketing tool, the car being a carrier of advertisements, the drivers and the passengers being the target audience.

    The scientific approach has started penetrating advertising activities since early 20 century. John Caples and Claude Hopkins proposed to create advertising as a combination of art and science for the first time. The fact that advertising should achieve marketing goals and solve marketing tasks rather than be just beautiful or creative was emphasized. In the 30s and 40s, special-purpose organizations studying the effectiveness of advertising were

    created. Besides that, governments were also trying to improve the aesthetic qualities and artistic merit of outdoor advertising. For instance, art schools dedicated to the training of specialists in this field would be created in Germany.



    The use of analog photomontage was also improving outdoor advertising. The necessary fragments would be cut from photographs, adjusted to the necessary scale using enlargement, pasted together, retouched – and reshoot. Photomontage allowed creating a wide variety of combinations of images and photographs impossible before with ease. In the 20s, “illuminated advertising” appeared – advertising posters would be lit up with floodlights during evening or night time.

    After the WWII, a rapid increase in production, market development and the aggravation of competition in them was observed worldwide. Advertising, including outdoor one, in order to be ready for new challenges, had to be created on a new technological level. Professionals from a wide variety of areas would be attracted to increase its effectiveness: psychologists, marketing experts and economists. Greater attention started to be paid during the creation of outdoor ads to how the potential consumer was going to react to them, the study of their behavior, perception and the effect of the advertising message on them starting.

    Since the 50s, outdoor advertising has gained two serious competitors: TV advertising and radio advertising. Meanwhile, the improvement of the outdoor ads themselves was going the way of modernization of printing techniques and processes, the implementation of new, modern materials until mid-70s. Trawls, firewalls, city lights, backlights, brand walls – a description of the outdoor advertising of the era reads more like a list of services of a modern advertising printing house…




    The information age transformed the world of marketing and advertising fundamentally. The Internet inflicted great damage on printed, TV and radio advertising, but outdoor ads have not lost their topicality at all. Alongside with Internet advertising, outdoor advertising contends for leadership in early 21 century. These two media complement each other harmoniously as far as an offline and online campaign is concerned. The information age has given outdoor advertising a great deal of new, effective tools. For instance, photomontage has gone digital. Cutting, pasting together, retouching – all of this seems to be an awkward, long process despite the fact that less than one hundred years have passed since the time when such a process was considered a novelty. Using Corel Photo-Paint, GIMP, Adobe Photoshop, any manipulations with the material shoot are possible.

    Today, the creation of outdoor advertising is preceded by a process of marketing analysis, the development of a marketing strategy and tactics. The collection and processing of marketing information are impossible without the appropriate software. Meanwhile, the actual process of creation of the modern outdoor ads is literally permeated with information technology. Specialists predict that the outdoor advertising of the near future is going to become “smart”, is going to adjust to each specific consumer, showing the very information they need. This, however, is a completely different story…

    Article author
    Сергій Роговський

    Майстер друкарського слова в РПК "Юнівест". Людина, яка все піддає сумніву, потім сумнівається в своїх сумнівах і робить як сказав керівник.

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