Stephen Imbeau

How much are you affected by modern advertising?

Lots, I bet, and more than you think.

If you carry a cell phone, advertisers know what stores you shop and what you buy; even the stores you drive or walk by. If you use a credit card, advertisers can find out what you buy and where.

If you use the internet, advertisers or the major internet platforms know what pages you visit, what ads you “click on” and what you buy, even how much time you spend on one certain web page.

The results: ads targeted to your tastes and your buying habits sent to your computer or cell phone, automatically.

Advertising is ancient. Rock and wall painted messages or slogans go back at least 6,000 years to ancient India, Persia and Africa. The first printed ad using multiple posters was from China promoting high-quality sewing needles in about 1000 AD. In Medieval Europe, sign boards, town criers and trademarks were used to promote local shops. The advent of printed gazettes and newspapers led to advertising required to pay for the publications.

The French first used regular paid advertising to build newspaper circulation and thus regional or even national brand recognition. The English systematized newspaper advertising to promote mostly health aids (often quack medicines), foods, fashions and, eventually to the biggest of all, tobacco.

Ironically, early tobacco ads touted the safety and stylishness of cigarettes (also a technique used in the United States). Differences in advertising style depended on the class of the subject target.

Englishman Thomas Barrett started the first large-scale advertising company (called an agency) to sell washing soaps in the late 1800s for the Pears Soap Company. Barrett understood market segmentation, emotional or health appeals and the need to survey to keep up with changing public tastes.

Volney Palmer followed in the United States as a newspaper space broker. In 1869, a full-service agency was built in Philadelphia, the N.W. Ayer Advertising Agency, concentrating on patent medicines. By 1914, American advertising was concentrated on foods, automobiles, soaps, cosmetics and tobacco.

The first international ad agencies were based in England and France, spreading to the United States with the J. Walter Thompson agency (JWT), opening in 1899. By 2010, international advertising was dominated by Interpublic, Ommicom, Publicis and WPP.

Advertising revenue had risen to approximately $3 billion dollars even by 1920. After 1920, American advertising adopted psychological techniques to enhance the consumer purchasing instinct.

Advertising technique textbooks were written. Specific approaches to female consumers began after 1920 and expanded to include appeals to sexual enhancement, particularly to sell soaps and cosmetics.

World War II improved the revenues of advertisers as they worked to convince working Americans to support the war effort. After the war, advertising rapidly expanded, using the mediums of print, highway and street billboards, radio and television and then the internet.

Since 1957, some movies might include subliminal advertising, although debatably effective. Books were written both as texts and as novels to portray advertising techniques. Tobacco, cosmetics, perfumes and soaps, and automobiles were joined by beer and liquor advertising, powering advertising into the modern era.

But through it all, since 1900 the advertising percentage of the U.S. Gross National Product has remained at approximately 2.9%, reaching roughly $104 billion in 2015 with an estimated $70 billion outside the United States.

The leading ad agencies now include Ogilvy and Mather, IDEO, BBDO, TBWA, WPP and JWT, among others. Google lists more than 20 ad agencies right here in Florence.

Go out and buy something, or maybe more likely, click on a computer internet ad and buy from home. But make sure you can afford it.

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Dr. Stephen Imbeau and his wife, Shirley, have been in Florence for more than 30 years and raised their three children here. He and Dr. Joseph Moyer started the Allergy Center about 21 years ago, and it is now one of the largest in South Carolina. Contact him at

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