A Brief History of Print Advertising

Unlike TV, radio, and digital, print advertising goes back thousands of years. And for most of history, it was the only form of advertising other than word of mouth or direct to consumer, such as in a marketplace. To see how it’s changed over the centuries, here’s a walk through the history of print advertising.

Ancient print advertising

It’s perhaps a surprising discovery, today, that one of the oldest examples of print advertising was a notice to help a weaver in Egypt find his runaway slave. This ancient fragment, from 3000 BC in Thebes, was sent out on behalf of Hapu, a weaver.

Ancient advertisement from 3000 BC. A tan parchment with burned edges.

The translation reads:

“The man-slave, Shem, having run away from his good master, Hapu the Weaver, all good citizens of Thebes are enjoyed to help return him. He is a Hittite, 5′ 2″ tall, of ruddy complexion and brown eyes. For news of his whereabouts half a gold coin is offered. And for his return to the shop of Hapu the Weaver, where the best cloth is woven to your desires, a whole gold coin is offered.” Translated by James Playsted Wood 1958 in The Story of Advertising.

Notice how the weaver takes the opportunity to promote his products at the end. This isn’t entirely different from what we call an advertorial today, which presents as a news story something that’s really an advertisement. The ‘news’ in this ad is that Hapu needs help finding Shem. But he uses this opportunity to distinguish his products from his competition.
Five thousand years ago.

As interesting as this is, it’s worth remembering that for most of history, print advertising was likely a challenge because all writing had to be done by hand. No print media existed to be easily consumed by the masses. Hapu probably had to write out a large number of these notices by hand, and send them out via courier to various cities and hope for a response.
Several thousand years later, around 1436, the invention of the printing press changed everything. Suddenly, you could print books, periodicals, flyers, and many other documents in far greater quantity than before. And with that, print advertising began its ascent, though very slowly at first

Early print advertising

In 1472, a flier was nailed on the door of a church advertising a book of prayers. Advertising such as this probably continued to happen more and more as businesses, governments, and institutions realized how much more effectively and broadly they could communicate through print.

That said, print advertising took its time to gain a foothold, mainly due to other differences from modern life today. With few means of long-distance transportation, the majority of people remained in their towns and villages for most of their lives. Therefore, most business owners would be known in their communities, and would know most of their regular and potential customers. That relatively fixed customer base would make advertising mostly unnecessary.

If there’s only one wood carver in town, that’s where you go. If there are two, it wouldn’t take long to figure out who had the better prices or more skill, and word of mouth would spread.
But over time, populations grew, innovation accelerated, and people began seeing the value that print advertising could deliver.

As early as 1605, Germany had a newspaper — Relation — that ran print ads very much like our modern day classified ads. In the 1500s and 1600s, fashion magazines from France and Italy got printed and distributed, and some examples from these remain today.
In 1609, British newspapers regularly ran ads for a variety of audiences, including opportunities to migrate to America. They also featured ads selling items collected from around the world such as Persian rugs, spices from India, and porcelain from China.

In 1704, what is believed to be the first newspaper ad in the US arrived courtesy of the Boston News-Letter. It was a real estate ad describing a property on Long Island. Here’s the actual text:

“At Oyster-bay on Long-Island in the Province of N.York, There is a very good Fulling-Mill, to be Let or Sold, as also a Plantation, having on it a large new Brick house, and another good house by it for a Kitchin & work house, with a Barn, Stable, etc. a young Orchard, and 20 Acres clear Land. The Mill is to be Let with or without the Plantation: Enquire of Mr. William Bradford Printer in N.York, and know further.”

And in 1729, Benjamin Franklin launched a newspaper called the Pennsylvania Gazette, and it included sections for ads. Similarly, a newspaper in France launched in 1836 and funded itself primarily through advertising.

Modern print advertising emerges

As the 20th century approached, newspapers and other periodicals began to proliferate. And as more and more of them realized it was better business to fund their publications with ads so they could keep subscription prices lower, print advertising boomed.

Ads such as the one found here became commonplace.

Around this time, copywriting became a profession, with one department store hiring full-time copywriter John E. Powers in 1880.

And with so many options for printing ads, it is around this time that brand names became fixtures in ads and in people’s lives. The first ad agency in the UK opened in 1899, and their first client was Campbell’s soup. Proctor and Gamble spent $11,000 on Ivory soap ads in the late 1800s, and Kellogg’s began writing ads for cereal in 1906.

Also, images and graphics began to play larger roles in print advertising, a big shift from the mostly text-only ads that had been commonplace before, such as the one above.

By the 1940s and 50s, images dominated as color printing became the norm, and brands exploded in popularity and reach. With transportation now much easier through trains, cars, and airplanes, businesses could reach larger audiences and deliver products longer distances. And with television entering people’s homes, print advertising needed to use visuals more effectively to keep drawing and holding people’s attention.

Here’s an ad for a rifle from 1957, featuring more design elements in addition to photos and text:

A 1957 magazine ad for a Savage 340 rifle.

Imagery and graphic design continued advancing rapidly along with printing technology, so that the great cornucopia of magazines and various periodicals gave endless opportunities for businesses to publish print ads.

Below you’ll see two ads from 1983. First, the avocado ad features vibrant colors and language appealing to the emotional experience of eating avocados. Then, the Godiva ad uses ample empty space to fixate the reader on the chocolate. This ad was likely run in a golf or sporting magazine, demonstrating the niche advertising that magazines made possible.

A magazine from 1983 that pitches California Avocados. Sliced avocados on salads, next to eggs, as guacamole, and on a taco.


A Godiva magazine ad with a dark green background and a chocolate-colored golf ball on a golden tee.


And as print advertising moved into the 21st century, the biggest changes didn’t happen to print, but to everything around it. The competition from other forms of media reached its pinnacle once the internet arrived, and this affected every other form of advertising media as well.

History of print advertising competition

Before 1920, print media was basically the only option for sending out mass marketing and advertising. You could use direct mail, newspapers, periodicals, flyers, and perhaps other options, but other than doing it in person, you had to use print to engage your customers.

After 1920, print began facing competition from various other forms of media.

First came radio, and over the next thirty years, radio blossomed into a second viable media for sending out effective advertising that garnered enough response to justify the investment. Radio didn’t put much of a dent in print’s dominance though, for several reasons.

First, radio is auditory, not visual, so the way you market products and services through radio is very different from how you do it with print. Second, radio requires people to keep listening, whereas print can sit there and engage the consumer until they decide to act.

Radio boomed for several decades, and advertisers got very good at learning how to use it well. But they never stopped using print, and the number of newspapers, magazines, and other forms of print media continued to grow alongside radio.

Next came television.

And though television is a visual media that can do far more than static print, its drawbacks prevented it from slowing print advertising’s continued ascent. Throughout television’s dominance from the 1960s through around 2000, the dollars spent on print advertising — in all print media from newspapers to magazines to direct mail — also continued to rise.

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It wasn’t until the internet arrived that print advertising investments actually began to fall, and continue falling. See our post on print advertising competition to see how print has responded to the other forms of advertising media.

Today, not as much money gets invested in print advertising as before 2000, but print continues to thrive as an advertising media because of its inherent advantages.

Social media is less trustworthy than print. Plus, you have to capture attention in split seconds while people scroll endlessly. And it’s harder to measure results, depending on the type of ads you’re running and how well you’re targeting your audience. Even more ominous, recent changes to privacy laws are making it harder to target as effectively online. So while billions of ad dollars get poured into social media, it’s getting tougher to achieve the desired performance and response.

There are many other ways to advertise online, of course, and the sheer number of choices has played a role in the decline of advertising investments in print, as well as in radio and television. Plus, audiences are far more fractured than before. In the 1960s, there were four TV stations. Today, there are hundreds. Plus radio, plus all the online media.

With so many forms of media competing for our attention, all marketing today could be said to be more difficult than before.

That’s why, within print advertising, door hanger distribution and marketing is coming to be seen as the most effective form of print media in use today. The front porch is probably the place with the fewest distractions in people’s lives. Receiving a robust, sturdy door hanger feels sort of like getting a package. It feels like a personal delivery from a business down the street, not a faceless corporation.

When email marketing first came out, some people thought it would be the death of direct mail. But while email can be very effective, emails also get deleted in less than a second. Many of them don’t even get opened. Others end up in spam and promotions folders, if they get delivered at all — and some don’t because of senders with bad reputations.

But front door marketing delivers 100% impressions—– everyone who gets one will look at it. The odd shapes and sizes make them harder to toss compared to direct mail.

Take a look at some examples of door hangers from real campaigns by Power Direct.

Early print advertising strategies still in use today.

One of the most incredible things about the history of print advertising is that the methods and strategies for getting attention, engaging customers, and motivating a response have been developed over hundreds of years.

This is another reason radio didn’t really pose a threat to print marketing. By the time radio showed up, print marketers had spent decades learning how to write effective ads and target their ideal customers.

When you look at old print ads like the ones earlier in this article, you start to notice certain features that advertisers still use today, such as:

  • Sales with reduced prices and discounts
  • Advanced and specialized products
  • Payment plans
  • Free content offers such as catalogs
  • Contests and giveaways
  • Warranties
  • Measurable calls to action
  • Emotion-driven and outcome-focused benefits

Here’s a look at a ton more examples of old print ads through the decades where you can see these strategies in action, even dating back before 1900.

A smart reason to study these is because it reinforces your confidence in the strategies you’re using. If these strategies worked 120 years ago, and 80 years ago, and 40 years ago, there’s no reason to think they won’t work today.

How today’s advertisers are winning with print

Print advertising — especially door hangers because of the increased impressions and unique features — remains one of the best media channels for utilizing the marketing strategies listed above.

With print marketing today, you actually face less competition than 30 years ago. In this sense, the effects of the internet and smartphones are working in your favor. Since fewer companies are using direct marketing print tactics today than in the past, there isn’t as much for people to sort through, and that increases the chances yours will get looked at and considered.

Plus, print’s staying power works in its favor, as it always has. The fact we still have a print advertisement from 5000 years ago says something about the endurance of print. How many social media ads will be remembered even the next day?

But print endures. Print advertising gets put on tables, counters, and desks. It gets filed. It gets set aside until the spouse gets home so they can discuss it. People put print advertising in their to-do pile. They stick it on the fridge.

It isn’t even possible to do that with most digital marketing. You can save emails, but for other online marketing, you have to keep the tab open or else you’ll lose the page. For PPC ads, it’s a use it or lose it situation because the person searching will choose something, and likely never make the same search again.

Print also lets you leverage graphic design in your favor, in ways that don’t work as well online.
You can use color, callout boxes, testimonials, imagery, subtitles, fonts, captions, slip notes, and many other design and copy tricks to snag the reader’s attention.

You can also appeal to more of the five senses.

Online ads, depending on the media, can use sight and sound, but that’s it. Print advertising can use touch, and in some cases smell and taste, if you’re giving away free samples or using scratch-and-sniffs. You can tack things onto print advertising to make it lumpy. You can surprise and delight. You can be more unique.

The print advertising media with the highest impressions and engagement

With door hangers, using all the above strategies is even easier than with direct mail.
Door hangers aren’t constrained by postal service requirements. You can make them however big and oddly shaped you want. You can attach free samples. You can make them interactive in many other ways.

And best of all, as already mentioned, door hangers greet people in a place where they aren’t used to seeing advertisements — their front porch. It can’t really be overstated how important that is.

In every other environment where we encounter advertising, we expect to encounter it. This includes billboards on the road as well as direct mail. When we expect it, we can more easily block it out. It blends in with the background. We perceive it as a ‘commercial.’

But what do we usually find on our front porch? Packages that we’ve ordered.

The front porch is a positive place where our treasures get delivered. And that’s the environment where door hangers get delivered too.

Two blue Best Buy door hanger mockups on a white background.

If your company has never run a door hanger campaign with a direct marketing agency, Power Direct is the leading door hanger and flier distribution company in the United States.

We’ve worked with some of the biggest brands in the country, and we employ strategies that rival direct mail and digital marketing in terms of quality control, audience targeting, and data analytics and tracking.

We are outdoor and front door marketing specialists. Learn more about door hanger marketing with our FAQ page.

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