How Advertising Has Ruled Your Life (And Your Wallet) Through History

Angela Colley—In Pictures

From branding to billboards, you could be exposed to as many as 4,000 ads per day. Advertising is as American as Mrs. Smith’s Original Flaky Crust Made With Real Butter Dutch Apple Pie.

While the constant barrage might make it seem like advertising has gotten completely out of control, it isn’t anything new. Advertising pretty much came over on the Mayflower with the Founding Fathers and marketing departments ever since have been pushing products using humor, personal interest, and a healthy dose of self-esteem exploitation.

Beyond selling us a lot of products, ads have also served as a sort of time capsule for the worst—and best—parts of our society. As our opinions and lifestyles change, our ads have evolved to reflect that. And the best agencies have always stayed just ahead of the curve, keeping us engaged and buying for the last century.

From simple Colonial adverts to Mad Men to brands embracing social issues, here’s a brief (and often cringy) history of American advertising:

Life, liberty, and the pursuit of advertising?

While advertising in some form pre-dates the Colonies, you can largely thank Ben Franklin for kicking off the American advertising extravaganza. Franklin’s first newspaper, The Pennsylvania Gazette, featured pages dedicated to text ads, usually merchants hawking wares recently arrived from Europe.

Ever the visionary, by 1742 when Franklin launched General Magazine, he also launched the nation’s first magazine ads. So, thanks?

Bring on the products

Early American advertising had a certain charm, but it was mostly selling useful products to people who could afford them. And then came the Victorians.

According to Cynthia Petrovic, artist and curator of vintage ads, Victorians didn’t just invent industrialization, flowery novels, and really bad food, they’re also the proud founders of insecurity-based marketing ploys. Take this contraption shown in many era magazines for example. Strapping this to your skull and pulling the strings is all you need to create the long, shapely face structure all Victorian women should wish for.

The original Home Shopping Network

By the end of the 19th century, Sears, Roebuck, and Company had made a name for itself by shipping out massive catalogs commonly known as “wish books” featuring every product the company sold. And the company sold a lot—everything from grooming products to veterinarian equipment to entire build-it-yourself home kits. For the first time, families all over the nation could suddenly sit around a roaring fire and decide if they were most wishing for a ‘beautiful hat of velvet with glossy plush top,’ ‘The Wilison Perfection’ complete kitchen Hoosier cabinet, or ‘the Economy King Cream Separator’ for at-home dairies—all in one place.

More expensive pieces could be bought in installments with a small down payment and shipped right to your door.

Dubious claims

Look, we know companies still get away with a lot, but in the early years of the modern advertising movement (before that pesky government got involved and started regulating the product and the marketing) ad agencies could sell—and say—just about anything. Cocaine-laced toothpaste? Check. Doctors recommending cigarettes? Check. Lead paint for children’s nurseries? Check.

And then there was Lysol. Originally sold as an antiseptic soap, Lysol heavily pushed the product as a safe and gentle douche, despite reports of at least 193 poisonings and five deaths associated with using it that way, according to Mother Jones. When the product was reformulated with another chemical, Lysol was marketed as a good cleaner for toilet bowls—and also still as a perfectly harmless ’feminine hygiene’ product.

Loose lips sink ships

The government also quickly realized marketing could be an effective tactic to influence public opinion. In WWII, Allied governments and supporters used everything from full color posters to cartoons to push the war effort, effectively encouraging enlistment, rationing, victory gardens, the purchase of war bonds, and even ride sharing. Ranging from clever to embarrassingly racist, propaganda posters were so popular we’re still selling recreations today.

Sugar, ah honey, honey!

Food science has a long and complicated history, but the making—and selling—of sugary, salty, and addicting foods really blossomed in the post-war rations, “Leave it to Beaver,” ‘50s. But getting experienced home cooks to switch from painstakingly homemade foods to pre-packed TV dinners and sugary snacks took some creative marketing. Take this ad 7up would rather we all forget: Even babies love a good sugar drink. You just need to mix it right on into the bottle.

By 1954, five million Americans were considered obese—a shocking number at the time.

Silly woman, marketing is for men

Despite being primarily responsible for choosing and buying a household’s products, ad agencies have never been particularly kind to women. Ads geared toward women played on insecurities, attempting to enforce a belief that women were not attractive, smart, or capable. They also couldn’t open a bottle, cook a steak without setting the kitchen on fire, bathe properly, or “keep ahold of their man.”

By the ‘50s and ‘60s, consumerism was big business and ad agencies were all too happy to create a minefield of insecurities and self-doubt for women if it meant selling even the smallest of products. Like this fastener for your skirt buttons–because you might lean over, expose tiny bits of the slip under your skirt, and then promptly die alone.

And then there’s this…

Ads were often worse in their depiction of people of color. Seems to most marketing companies, all products were being sold to—and used by—white, racist men. Take this not so wholesome Cream of Wheat ad which manages to play on every racist trope possible while also trying to sell us unappetizing breakfast food.

Kids, don’t forget to ask your parents for this!

Advertising to kids, or the “youth market,” has been around for decades. Radio programs often asked kids to join special clubs where they could essentially level up by asking mom and dad to buy crap from advertisers. But marketing to kids really hit its extreme with the invention of Saturday morning cartoons. Most of the cartoons you watched as a kid – G.I. Joe, He-Man Masters of the Universe, or She-Ra Princess of Power, for example –were wholly designed to sell you the toys, which often hit shelves before the TV show premiered. For the first (but not the last) time, content was being created purely to sell ancillary figurines.

The Superbowl

Today, Superbowl ads are like an incredibly expensive sport of their own with people tuning in just for the commercials themselves (Hi, mom!). In 2019, CBS charged $5.1 to $5.3 million for a commercial slot. But it was Apple’s “1984” Superbowl commercial—complete with direction by Ridley Scott—that kicked the modern Superbowl spend-a-thon into high gear.

And you get a car!

By the 2000s, advertisers were looking for better ways to engage an audience that had developed blinders to the oversaturated TV ad market. (In 2009, broadcast networks played an average 13 minutes and 25 seconds of ads every hour.)  And Pontiac thought they’d found the answer: Oprah.

Oprah was no stranger to audience giveaways, but Pontiac kicked it up to 11 by supplying the show with nearly 300 fully loaded new cars—one for every audience member. Oprah, in classic Oprah fashion, made sure her producers filled the seats with people who really needed a new car and when she made the announcement, some audience members fainted. It was the promotional stunt to end all promotional stunts.

But nothing is really ever free. Federal and state taxes added up to about $6,000 for each audience member, according to, leaving many already-cashed strapped people forced to get a loan or sell the car for a cheaper model.

The heart of the Clydesdales

In the last two decades, advertising has largely lost its tough outer shell. Ads showcasing women being “playfully” abused by their husbands were replaced with stay-at-home dads cleaning toilets. Marketing agencies aimed to be funny, not “sexy.” And brands wanted to show their consumers that they cared, too.

One of the first of its kind (and in our opinion, one of the best) came from the people behind Budweiser wanting to show their respect for the victims of 9/11 and the people of New York in the best way they knew how: by sending in the Clydesdales. The ad only appeared one time officially but has made internet appearances every year since airing in 2002. Did it endear a struggling nation to Budweiser? Maybe. But maybe that wasn’t the point.

Like a girl

After more than a century of ads treating women like the lesser sex, some marketing agencies finally got the message that women, surprisingly, don’t want to buy products designed to make them feel bad about themselves. Some brands today highlight all kinds of women, some—like American Eagle’s Aerie ­—even making the move to put an end to Photoshopping. Done well, a body positive approach can mean big profits. Aerie’s comparable sales jumped 23 percent in the fourth quarter of 2018, marking 17 consecutive quarters of growth. No small feat for a brand selling primarily in the nation’s dwindling malls.

But it was Always’s “Like a Girl” Superbowl ad that gave us the most memorable challenge to the long-held marketing ideals of what it meant to be female.

The talk

Advertising largely still has a long way to go before ads are giving people of color the respect and equality they deserve, but one surprising company showed they understand that people want to buy products from companies they know and respect—and they did it by not showing their products at all.

We don’t honestly know if this ad by P&G boosted sales, created brand awareness, or any of those other marketing buzzwords. What we do know is it showed something real and showed how advertising can be used in a capacity for social good by shifting perspectives.

Hey, cool kids

In an age of changing societal norms and ad-savvy consumers, finding a clever way to work in branding is the name of the game for most marketing departments now. On the consumer side, that mostly means having a front row seat to hilarious flops such as Pepsi’s tone-deaf Kendall Jenner ad. But one company proved that you can absolutely sell us a Whopper, target the “youths,” and take a stand as a company all at once. Burger King’s bullying ad, while it prominently features their stores and their signature burger, also offer a poignant look at an important issue.

Marketing has come a long way in the last century. Some good, a lot bad, but one thing’s for sure: marketing companies know how to reach us and our wallets (and sometimes our hearts) better than we want to admit. And now we leave you with this: