The Evolution of Advertising: Stop Selling & Make Friends

May 14th, 2017

Ever since one guy had something he wanted to sell to another guy, advertising has existed.

Not even considering the thousands of years of advertising history lost to us through decay, we have examples from almost every ancient civilization. Egyptian papyrus advertisements. Political ads in Arabia. Painted frescoes on Roman walls.

The earliest surviving printed advertisement is a specimen from China, sometime around 1000 AD. It's a painted rabbit threading a needle, with the words "We buy high-quality steel rods and make fine-quality needles, to be ready for use at home in no time" printed underneath.

The purpose? Getting customers to visit Jinan Liu’s Fine Needle Shop in Shandong Province.

Throughout the Middle Ages, during times where literacy didn't always take precedent over learning a trade or simply making a wage, signs often reverted to simple images (or logos) by showing a hammer for a blacksmith, a candle for a candlemaker, or a shoe for a cobbler.

But modern advertising? When does this start? Long before digital ads, the first traditional modern ads started in print.

Enter the English newspaper.

old ads

It doesn't take a lot of technical analysis to understand quite how overpowering these ads seem. But then again, they're what worked at the time, for society as it was. It was a society that hadn't yet assumed the psychology behind advertising. Perhaps it was a more honest society, or perhaps just more gullible. But that's irrelevant: the fact of the matter is that for whatever reason, high-energy, high-information ads worked.

And they continued to work, throughout the middle of the 20th century. Then, the pushy, overbearing, fact-heavy ads killed themselves. Too much of something causes blindness, and people stopped paying attention to these ads. After all, how many facts can you ingest during a single period?

ford ad

I think that the European car ad was one of the first forms to consistently, and with quality, break away from the norm. For example, in 1960 Ford was still running large-format, text-heavy ads that, in retrospect, just seem like they're trying to bludgeon their name into the foreheads of potential drivers.

Enter VW.

vw ad

It was unthinkable to associate your car with the word lemon. Or that your car was made with economy in mind. Or to show a busted-off fender.

And they continued to blow away the competition.

porsche ad

So what's the takeaway from this timeline of advertising style?

I think there's several things to learn from this progression. But perhaps most importantly, a lesson that could be learned by quite a few companies: you're trying to make friends, not sell a product.

For an example of what not to do, let's look at a dying form of advertising. Radio: once the greatest form of communication in the world, and now a slowly dying entity. Turn on your local radio station (if you even have a radio...the only one I have is built into my car stereo) and listen to the sorts of ads.

Local used car lots. Bail bond services. Auto garages. Payday loans. Some dude wanting to give you top dollar for your grandmother's old silver. And usually, ads for the radio station itself. Not exactly the most progressive of today's global business, right?

The primary problem with these ads are that they're selling something. And that's it.

None of them are building the brand or making friends.

A friend is a customer who will come back, time after time again.

Apple makes friends. Porsche makes friends. Coke makes friends. Starbucks makes friends. Because somehow, they made the decision a long time ago to pivot away from telling people how good their stuff is, to making it easy for people like them.

If you've spent any time in a creative agency, you're used to an eternal onslaught of emails. Usually mine are from outsourcing web dev agencies, offering a long list of 30+ technical proficiences, hourly rates of $5, and spiels like this (actual quote pulled directly from one of these emails):

Technical Expertise, Profound Business Understanding, Streamlined Processes, Diverse Domain expertise, Regional & International Exposure has helped us in delivering Unbeatable Quality at Ultra-Low Cost.


Beat me over the head some more. I'll be certain to buy your services.

The difference is that there are other agencies who will actually put in the time to develop a relationship with me: and those are the ones that any business manager will end up working with.

If you have friends, they'll buy your things. You won't even have to ask them.

Gil Gildner
Gil Gildner

Former creative type, current dork. Cofounder of search marketing company Discosloth. I'm into beer, Blade Runner, and fast German cars.