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The History of American Advertising


The history of American advertising dates back to the very beginnings of the Colonial era, though the newspaper enticements to be found at the turn of the 1700’s were simple indeed. Very basic text ads would often appear consecutively in newspaper after newspaper, presenting a simple message like “Just Imported – A Variety of Goods”.

Benjamin Franklin

Though Founding Father Benjamin Franklin is celebrated for many other things, including his pioneering theories about electricity, this man of many talents was also one of the key first figures in American advertising. Via his publications The Philadelphia Gazette and Poor Richard’s Almanac, he introduced the concept of accompanying ad text with illustrations.

Amazingly, Franklin also shared one of the first successful examples of ad copy when he published promotions for his own stove product. Rather than a single sentence blurb, Franklin made sure to go into great detail not so much about the product itself but all the different reasons why people should consider buying one (safety, health, etc.).

New York Newspapers

The concept of newspaper advertising took off in earnest a century later on the streets of New York. Beginning in the early 1830’s, Manhattan was home to dozens of different newspapers, and barons such as New York Herald publisher James Gordon Bennett led the charge. His major contribution was a simply but fundamental one. Bennett was the first to figure out that if by charging advertisers for space on his pages, he could keep the costs down and have his sponsors essentially subsidize the enterprise. Bennett initially ran ads for a period of two weeks before eventually paring that down to a single day.

Meanwhile, the other 19th century persona who is pointed to for helping shape the standards and practices of modern American advertising is P.T. Barnum. His methods for attracting crowds to his museums and traveling exhibits are acknowledged as the foundation of advertising manipulation and exaggeration. Everything from infomercials to SPAM email can be ultimately tracked back to Barnum.

Madison Avenue

After the emergence of such key tenets of the advertising slogan, the notion of a product or company brand and radio jingles, it was the job of 1950s and 1960s era ad agency wizards in New York City to shilling to the next level via the TV Age. Commercial TV began in the U.S. right after World War II, but things really took of beginning a decade later with the explosion of Manhattan based ad agencies.

Until the AMC TV show Mad Men debuted in 2008, it was an era that had been largely forgotten. But thanks to the award-winning look at 1960s era ad men, the foundation of today’s range of pitches is becoming once again more familiar. In an ironic twist, the show has spawning a wave of retro-feel advertising.



John Hopkins University – A Brief History of Advertising, Retrieved December 8, 2010 from

CENGAGE Learning – James Gordon Bennett, Retrieved December 8, 2010 from

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