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The ongoing history of marketing

The way things are marketed has changed a lot over the ages.

From stone tablets to print and outdoor advertising and the advent of “branding” (a concept that has become a mantra for the entire industry), marketing has shaped our world in myriad ways. It has adapted to embrace the proliferation of the television, mobile device technologies, the birth of social media, and even the internet itself.

We at Phrasee, who occupy but a small, specialised corner of this massive marketing world, decided to take a look back to where it all started and reflect on where we and the wonderful medium of email fit into the amazing kaleidoscope that is marketing.

Join us, won’t you? 

The ongoing history of marketing

Marketing has been around in some form or another since ancient times. The walls of Pompeii are emblazoned with graffiti advertising a fermented fish stew known as “Garum”.

“Scaurus’s best garum, mackerel-based, from Scaurus’s manufacturers,” reads one such slogan preserved for eternity by the 79 AD eruption of mount Vesuvius. Apparently no one told those ancient marketers that “fermented fish stew” sells itself.

But it wasn’t until the 15th Century that the public promotion of goods and services really took off. Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press ushered in a new era in which it was possible to produce printed material, including commercial advertisements, in large numbers for widespread distribution.

One such early print ad run by Pasqua Rosee, the proprietor of London’s first coffeehouse, in 1652 is believed to be the first ever coffee promo. Just like the coffee ads of today it promised buyers a unique product from far away:

The first coffee advert

Of course, not everyone was thrilled by the proliferation of print advertising. As the English writer Samuel Jonson commented in 1759, “Whatever is common is despised. Advertisements are now so numerous that they are very negligently perused, and it is therefore become necessary to gain attention by magnificence of promises, and by eloquence sometimes sublime and sometimes pathetic.”

Meanwhile in colonial America in the 1700’s, ads also began to proliferate in newspapers. Ads such as this one by a young George Washington announcing the sale of sailing ship called “The Brigantine Anne and Elizabeth”.

The ongoing history of marketing

Such ads, ranging in content from notices about the sale of slaves to those boasting about miracle cures from quack doctors became a ubiquitous presence in print media.

It was also around this this time that merchants and shopkeepers began distributing advertising to potential customers via the mail. As history professor Carl Robert Keyes, from Assumption College in Massachusetts, observed at the time. “Rather than invest the time and effort to write the same letter – using a quill pen – multiple times”, savvy merchants would instead have notices printed multiple times by a printer before folding them and enclosing it with sealing which were then delivered by the postmaster, an early form of direct sales mail.

This “direct sales” model would later be perfected by “The Godfather of Copywriting”; Robert Collier. Collier made vast sums of money in the 1930s and 1940s by sending well-crafted direct sales mail correspondence to everyone he possibly could.

Then, the advent of public relations in the early 20th century (an art-form perfected by Freud’s nephew Edward Bernays) yielded the first modern marketing campaigns.

Bernays famously opened up the lucrative tobacco industry to the largely untapped female market by hiring women to smoke “torches of freedom” in the 1929 New York Easter Sunday parade. This well choreographed affair featuring attractive women smoking Lucky Strikes was widely covered in the media with The New York Times running an article with the headline “Group of Girls Puff at Cigarettes as a Gesture of ‘Freedom'”.

Known as the “Baron of Ballyhoo” and the “Prince of Puff”, Bernays, who lived until the ripe old age of 103, started out as Broadway press agent. He organised publicity stunts like having starlet Flores Revalles photographed at the zoo with a snake wrapped around her. His work as a pitchman included making Ivory soap a household name through a soap-sculpting contest and more controversial efforts like waging the United Fruit Company’s campaign against Guatemalan leader Jacobo Árbenz in the 1950’s.

Next, the birth of the Woodstock generation saw giants like Coca-Cola harness folk inspired jingles to promote the sale of their world famous product as television advertising moved to the marketing forefront.

As the digital era dawned, new possibilities revealed themselves. It all seemed an eternity away from the good old days when people gathered in fields to sing about the joys of sugar infused water, but today’s more evolved marketing strategies still carry many of the branding hallmarks of TV advertising’s golden age.

With the advent of the internet and the public’s gradual transition away from print and TV and toward digital, new and previously unimagined marketing avenues began to open up.

It began in 1978, with the first marketing email. This was followed up soon after by “pop-up ads”, which everyone hated.


Banner advertising, affiliate marketing and content marketing came to dominate the digital sphere. As the first digital generations (those raised in a world where the home computer and the internet were already a permanent fixture of daily life) came of age, the marketing promises of the new digital medium seemed completely without limits.

With the widespread adoption of social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, many wondered if traditional advertising channels were dying a slow death. Every brand, company, and corporation dedicated itself in earnest to the important task of developing an online presence, lest it be left behind to cater to those few either too stubborn or too old to adapt to a rapidly shifting digital world.


It didn’t matter that the lofty promises of social media marketing had failed to bear fruit to the degree most had expected. Each shiny new platform that came into fashion had vast sums of money thrown at it in an effort to reach modern consumers where they now lived… online.

Lost in all this was email, the internet communications platform that started it all. Poorly designed and dishonest email marketing campaigns and the advent of spam filters had relegated email to the marketing world’s collective back burner, but it never really went away.

As weak ROI data from social media marketing began to trickle in, the world warmed to email once more.

A new generation of email marketers, designers, coders and service providers breathed new life into email marketing, and even email itself as a communications medium. And so the email marketing renaissance began.


In the new data-rich digital world, optimisation, relevance, and personalisation rule the day. Modern digital marketing is all about targeting the right person in the right place at the right time with the right ad. And, many believe that it is in the data that we will find our way there.

We modern marketers find ourselves in the unique historical position to figure out exactly what works the best for different brands and use this information to build marketing campaigns with maximal impact.

Traditional channels like TV, print and outdoor advertising remain dominant in many industries but new possibilities pop up daily for cross-channel promotions. Such as interacting mobile technologies with traditional advertising to create a new renaissance all of it’s own.

As for what these truly optimised digital marketing campaigns will eventually evolve to look like, we suppose we’ll all just have to wait and see.

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Trevor Beers, Senior Language Technician, Phrasee

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