The First Ad in Human History

From a long, long, long time ago

Sean Kernan
Apr 27 · 4 min read
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Source: Pic by Riccardo Resciani

Today, advertising is a trillion-dollar industry. Commercials are everywhere. You literally can’t escape them.

Before long, we’ll have to wait to skip an ad before opening our physical mailbox.

Advertising has always been around. But mass advertising didn’t become the norm until the mid 19th century, when you saw a sophistication of the process, with ads routinely appearing in newspapers and magazines.

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1898 Horse Ad Haggerty

A hundred years prior, in Japan, written ads were common. You saw large banners promoting different products in markets.

During the keto area, there were frequent ads for their medicinal practices.

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Kinseitan Medicine ad from Tokyo in 1806. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Sliding back another 500 years, we get to the Middle Ages.

Most advertising consisted of simple words describing what that place did: “butcher,” “blacksmith,” “tailor.”

Or it would simply display a symbol that represented what service the establishment provided. Illiteracy rates were high during this era and thus businesses had to adapt.

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A render of common medieval advertising — this one a blacksmith. (Image by CGTrader)

Outside of that, word of mouth and town criers were the most common forms of advertising.

Where It All Began

Now, the very oldest advertisement that we have proof of comes from Egypt. We are talking thousands of years before those blacksmith ads, approximately 2500 BC.

It’s believed that Egypt is where advertising began. It was common to see huge visible ads that depicted political and religious doctrines. Great pains were taken to make them, with engravings manually carved into flat surfaces and different forms of stone.

An easier and common alternative was to paint messages on walls:

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(Source: pic from U of British Columbia)

The problem is that these wall paintings were in busy areas where they were exposed to the elements. This led to the quick degradation of its quality. They didn’t have water-proofed paint like we do today.

Additionally, Egyptians most commonly used papyrus, a plant-based cloth that most Egyptian scrolls were recorded on:

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A historical scroll (Source: pic by Times Higher Education

Papyrus allowed for longer-lasting messages if they were stored correctly.

The First Ad in Human History

It was 3000 B.C. The location is Thebes, Egypt.

A man, Hapu, was running a clothing factory. He had many workers employed, and among those workers were quite a few slave laborers.

One of them was a slave named Shem. It’s safe to presume Shem wasn’t happy with his labor agreement. Perhaps the compensation wasn’t satisfactory. But that’s just an educated guess.

At some point, Shem made a run for it and broke free. The factory owner then had trouble finding him.

So he had a scribe make and then hoist up an advertisement using papyrus cloth.

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The 5000-year-old advertisement. (Source: Sutori)

It’s referred to as “The Shem of Papyrus” and is currently on display in the British Museum in London.

It read: The man-slave, Shem, having run away from his good master, Hapu the Weaver, all good citizens of Thebes are enjoined to help return him.

He is a Hittite, short, 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.” — Hapu (Translation by James Playstead Wood)

This advertisement was eventually found during an archaeological dig thousands of years later.

The slave Shem was never found. What happened after his departure isn’t known, either. Whether he was eaten alive by predators or died in the lap of fair-skinned maidens is but another mystery of archaeology.

What remains true is that Shem’s legacy is forever tied to the first known formal advertisement.

Also, it’s interesting that Hapu turned this runaway slave ad into an infomercial for his product. “Where’s my slave! → c’mon down for the best cloth!”

Very ancient Egypt of him.

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Thanks to Niklas Göke

Sean Kernan

Written by

Quality over quantity. That guy from Quora. Enjoy? Follow for more. https://seanjkernan.substack.com/ Open to gigs seanjkernan@gmail.com

Better Marketing

Marketing advice and case studies to help you market ethically, authentically, and effectively.

Sean Kernan

Written by

Quality over quantity. That guy from Quora. Enjoy? Follow for more. https://seanjkernan.substack.com/ Open to gigs seanjkernan@gmail.com

Better Marketing

Marketing advice and case studies to help you market ethically, authentically, and effectively.

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