The best a man can get: Ten milestone moments in advertising history.


1. 79 A.D. Billboards in Pompeii

Ah! The glory of the ancient Roman empire. Olive skinned, muscular men striding the avenues, clad in togas, debating the great issues of the day. Beautiful, raven-haired maidens bearing baskets laden with the sweetest fruits in the golden sun. And advertising, everywhere advertising.

According to 19th century historian Henry Sampson, the walls of Pompeii were smothered in hand-written notices pointing the reader to shops, markets and entertainments. In a way this was the first graffiti, but more accurately these were the very first billboards - in 79 AD. Sampson also noted the hasty and transitory nature of the messages. Which actually makes them sound even more like modern billboards. Unfortunately the one reading "I don't like the look of that volcano" has yet to be discovered.

2. 1732: Benjamin Franklin - art director

Bi-focal specs, the lightning rod, the odometer, the furnace stove and the watertight shipping compartment - all invented by US politician Benjamin Franklin. So perhaps we shouldn't be too shocked to discover he was the world's first art director. As publisher of the popular Poor Richard's Almanac (yes, he did books too), Ben F was the first editor to think of putting pictures alongside advertisements to hold the reader's attention and break up the page. He was also a big fan of white space, insisting headlines had plenty of clearance so they stood out on the page.

His '50% off all lightning rods this weekend only' campaign was just one notable success.

3. 1865: P.T. Barnum, copywriter

Best known for his sensational circus shows and being played by Frank Spencer on the London stage, P.T. Barnum was also a dab hand at the old copy. As well as noting "There is one born every minute" he realised a nicely honed strapline was the perfect way to get the punters shelling out their shillings. Which is why he brought us these gems:

"Caravans of Giant Coursing Elephants and Camels"
"After an Unbroken Night of Twenty Centuries, the Resplendent Sun of Imperial Roman Pastimes Reappears."

Classy and beats "I'm Lovin' It" into a cocked hat.

4. 1925: John Caples invents direct response campaigns

When he died at 90 in 1990, John Caples was remembered for one thing - writing one of the most successful ads in history. At 26 he was working for Ruthrauff & Ryan agency in New York. They had the account of the US School of Music which was recruiting students. Caples came up with the headline ''They Laughed When I Sat Down at the Piano But When I Started to Play!''  followed by enrolment instructions. Return on investment ran at thousands of percent as the School was inundated with applications.

Direct response advertising soared in popularity. So when Sky Broadband's latest letter plops on your doormat tomorrow, you have Mr. Caples to thank. Thank you, John.

5. 1944: Paul Harvey - father of radio advertising

By the 1940s radio had swamped America, with thousands of stations available across every state and none of them playing 'Gangnam Style'. With an addicted audience of 24 million listeners on 1600 channels, Paul Harvey News was a phenomenon. Market research showed people were in love with his flamboyant voice and dramatic scripts. Back then sponsorship messages were actually read by the announcer, so unsurprisingly, companies queued to have their pitch presented in the fruity stylings of Harvey.

Still known as "the most listened-to voice in the history of radio", Paul always refused to take on ads for double glazing. He disliked them. Also, it hadn't been invented yet.

6. 1959: Volkswagen scale it down

At the end of the 1950s everybody in the automotive industry agreed - people love big cars. The bigger the better. If you couldn't get a medium-sized horse on the back seat, nobody would buy the vehicle. Or maybe they would? When Volkswagen decided to launch the legendary Beetle, they could hardly make a claim for massiveness. Instead they played on the car's petite charms."Think Small" ran the campaign's headline, over an image of a barely visible VW in a field. Perhaps the boast of 32 miles to the gallon swung it. Or its flair for parallel parking. Either way, the ad is till at the top of the Ad Age Top 100 Advertising Campaigns list.


7. 1984: Apple Computers borrow from Orwell

So who was Apple's arch rival in the eighties? Microsoft right? Nope. IBM was the front runner in the PC wars back then. What went wrong? That story would take an entire column, but Apple's challenging ad probably didn't help. Appropriately for the year, the screenplay was heavily influenced by George Orwell's dystopian novel. A young woman, pursued by the 'thought police', escapes the grasp of a cloned society, turning to hurl a discus through the IBM screens surrounding her.

You may have noticed Apple have made some rather substantial progress since then. As I was reading on my IBM smart phone just the other day.


8. 1990: Nike 'do it'

Dan Wieden was the copywriter's name. He must have been having a good day at the beginning of the 1990s when he was tasked with cracking a strapline to run on all Nike's advertising. In three words he gave the world one of the most successful pieces of branding copy ever. "Just Do It" not only pushed more pairs of training shoes to more people than could ever have been imagined, it reputedly inspired folk to lose weight, get married and start businesses. Suddenly a sports brand was about a whole lot more than sport. But is it pronounced 'Nike' or 'Nikee'? We may never know.


9. 1996: Larry Page & Sergey Brin search and find

When two geeky college students took their new programme to the all-conquering Yahoo! they were shown the door - which was very nice but they wanted an investment. They failed to get one and that was a shame, because Larry and Sergey had invented Google, deploying a few servers in a garage to change advertising forever. They knew that searchers could be very closely targeted by advertisers. Something of which advertisers liked the sound. Quite a lot.

And when was the last time someone said they were going to Yahoo! for something? Exactly.


10. 2004: Mark Zuckerberg's face time

Remember when you and your mates would hang around and discuss who you most fancied? Ever wondered why that didn't make you a billionaire? Because it worked for Zuckerberg. He wrote a programme which would allow his dorm mates at Harvard (like an American sixth-form college) rate the looks of other students. He called it The Face Book. Accidently he also changed the world. With over a billion users, the platform now has advertisers hopping around trying to work out how they can best leverage a seventh of the world's population through one website. Mark just drives his cash around in a fleet of trucks. Funnily enough no-one has ever posted to say they think I'm good looking. Yet.


BONUS. 2005: Three friends build a site with moving pictures

It seems the original idea was to create a platform which allowed friends to post footage of themselves falling off skateboards. Steve Chen, Chad Hurley and Jawed Karim worked for Paypal, but in their spare time they devised a site which is now a household name. And it's purpose has swung from hosting silly clips to being a monster marketing facility. Owned by Google (see above) since 2006 the mission statement is now "Target any kind of person, and we have sophisticated tools to help you find them." They're not kidding. Every day You Tube pulls more visitors than a city of malfunctioning cash machines.

Most of them are looking at cats, for some reason.


Magnus Shaw is a copywriter, blogger and consultant.

A collection of Magnus Shaw's columns is now available as a Kindle book.

Thanks to Alan Sharavsky for background facts.


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