Simple and Complex
Advertising became so prevalent that we often barely give it any thought at all. Everyone knows what advertising is – an endless stream of images, words and sounds on our screens, walls, road signs and, when it’s really catchy, in our heads. The essence of advertising is simple – it is about attracting people’s attention to products, services, ideas and concepts. It is at the same time a very complex industry that absorbs the latest advances in media, computing and psychology. Such nascent technologies as artificial intelligence and virtual reality were almost immediately adopted by marketers, way ahead of most other industries. Because of such rapid innovation, the infrastructure behind a simple ad is often so elaborate that only few professionals really understand it.
Advertising is perhaps one of the oldest professions that have ever existed. We can trace its beginnings to the ancient markets of Babylon, Greece and Rome where merchants from every corner of the Earth engaged in the activity that makes the world move – commerce. People always had to advertise – to barter meat for milk with neighbours, to sell new exotic spices from overseas or to rally people to settle in new continents.
First traces of advertising were found in the ruins of ancient Babylonia. These were simple road signs promoting the nearest tavern or market. The invention of the printing press in the 1440s revolutionized publishing. The print not only enabled a much broader distribution of books, but it also became a platform for new types of media such as newspapers. Because printing wasn’t cheap, publishers sold some of the pages to sponsors. Suddenly advertising could reach homes of every newspaper and magazine reader.
First newspaper ads were printed in France and quickly spread to England, the United States and then the whole world. As money poured in, marketing became a big business. First advertising agencies started as sales houses for newspaper ad space. With time, they expanded into copywriting, design and planning services, becoming the media giants of today.
A Digital Frontier
Personal computers disrupted the media landscape as fundamentally as the printing press. Mobile connectivity combined with rapid adoption of cheap smartphones enabled anyone to access virtually any information on the Internet. Marketers who have always been on the cutting edge of technology quickly realized that they could now reach their consumers anywhere in the world.
First digital banner ads on the world wide web appeared in 1994. While visually basic, their novelty attracted users who eagerly clicked through. Soon web pages were filled with an endless stream of colorful images. Ironically, the format that made digital advertising mainstream were simple text lines in search engines. Lacking any graphics but featuring the exact products people searched for, these ads could drive sales with much higher efficiency. During the early of the web nothing else could beat their simplicity and cost.
Soon enough, however, increasing processing power and higher cellular bandwidth enabled more sophisticated graphics. Rather than annoy people with endless popups, ads started to blend with native content and target people who showed specific interests and affinities.
Smartphones present the most abundant advertising platform that has ever existed. The latest generation of mobile devices has the processing and productivity capacity comparable with desktop PCs. Today, such pocket supercomputer has enough computational capacity to support immersive cinematic experiences. Whether as simple as a line of text or as complex as interactive as a game, the mobile media can tell a story and take people on a journey wherever they are. As of today, mobile digital advertising is the field where the most exciting innovations in marketing happen.
Media Is The Message
Most of us think of advertising as a way to sell us more stuff. This, however, is just a small part of the picture. As a form of media, it has always played a significant role in shaping opinions and promoting ideas. From pharaohs of ancient Egypt to today’s presidents of the United States, politicians use advertising to extend their power and influence. In fact, many attribute Barack Obama’s as well as Donald Trump’s presidency victories in 2008 and 2016 to their skillful use of social media and the Internet.
Art can stir emotions and influence hearts and minds through great masterpieces. Any marketer knows that the “Creative” is the most critical part of the media. While over the years power has shifted between religious institutions, royalty, bankers and corporations, people in power have always supported artists and shaped their work. Just like the Church paid for Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel, today banks and corporations sponsor art exhibitions. This delicate balance between the artist’s creative expression and the needs of their patrons has culminated in Advertising – the greatest art form of our century.
We can argue that the modern advertising is so strongly associated with consumerism for the sole reason that the modern society itself is driven by it. Marketers always follow people’s attention, not the other way around. In a way, advertising is no different from a hammer; it is but a tool that works equally well for selling junk food, helping someone get elected as a president as well as making people aware of important causes such as education, healthcare and environment. People should use advertising as a mirror of what their societies pay attention to while marketers should never forget what powerful tools they work with and apply them mindfully.