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Updated: May 26, 2020

For many Unleaded clients, advertising still plays a role in crafting the brand experience—especially in the digital space. When most people think about the origins of commercial art and advertising, they typically think of Mid-Century America and its post-war consumer goods—Mad Men and all that. Or maybe even early Coca-Cola campaigns or Victorian British ads for products such as the Barnum and Bailey Circus, Pears Soap or some kind of weird cocaine-laden toothpaste.

But the art of advertising actually dates back much, much farther. Check out these examples of early advertising in the ancient world:

Spittin’ Ad Rhymes

Since literacy was scarce among the masses within most ancient societies, the earliest examples of advertising involved oral promotions—often paired with song or poetry. Experts often site an example in the ancient Chinese text Shijing or “Classic of Poetry,” written from the 11th to 7th Centuries. The book is said to have recorded flutes being played to help sell candy. Rapping about products, pairing clever rhymes with song, was actually a popular sales method during China’s coincidentally named Song Dynasty (960–1279 AD).

Sketchy Pyramid Schemes

Some of the earliest forms of printed advertising were Egyptian. Ancient Egyptians used the stone equivalent of those WE BUY UGLY HOUSES signs you see while you’re sitting at a stoplight—carving or painting stone slabs and placing them along main roads, or painting walls along high-traffic areas. Official notices were often distributed using papyrus, whereas commercial ads were reserved for these walls or moveable slabs. We’ll leave the prospect of aliens for another day.

Unpleasant Endings

The ancient Neapolitan city of Pompeii actually sported a number of explicit ads purportedly promoting businesses engaged in the world’s oldest profession. One establishment in particular, known as the Lupanare (Wolf’s Den), featured wall paintings as a sort of menu for the services provided. Founded between the 6th and 7th Centuries, Pompeii was buried under several meters of volcanic ash when Mount Vesuvius erupted in 79 AD—preserving the Wolf’s Den and some of its ads for the modern visitor.



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