Although marketing has changed with technology over the years, the basic tenets of marketing are not new. And by “not new,” we’re not talking about the evolution of marketing over the past century or two, as most would assume. We’re talking in terms of antiquity – because evidence of marketing practices can be traced as far back as Ancient Rome.
Before we dive into this fascinating and brief history of marketing, let’s examine marketing in its purest form, which is persuasion. Strategy and execution practices aside, everything we do in marketing is about persuading behavior. So if you disassociate the contemporary term of marketing with acts of persuasion, it’s easier to comprehend a history of marketing that began as far back as the first century.
Julius Caesar - The Mastermind of Self Promotion
Let’s start with Julius Caesar, the famous Roman politician/soldier who named himself dictator of the Roman Empire in 44 BC. Julius Caesar notoriously overturned the Roman Republic (i.e., Roman Senate) and set the foundation of the Roman Empire by assuming dictatorship – and much of his success was thanks to well-written propaganda.
Popular belief indicates that Julius Caesar perpetuated the 9-year Gallic wars, his primary campaign, to boost his political career and pay off his massive debts. His efforts had many opposers in the Roman Senate. So, Julius Caesar cleverly used his annual reports to Rome as self-bolstering propaganda. His writings, publicly published as a book (Commentarii de Bello Gallicois – a.k.a. Commentaries on the Gallic War), included Julius Caesar’s firsthand account of the Gallic Wars written as a third-person narrative.
In his narrative, Caesar described the battles and intrigues during the fighting in Gaul. He cleverly painted himself as a hero to Rome and bolstered his popularity with the people, which helped him gain power over the Senate. His rise to power using persuasion (rather than force, which was common at the time) parallels modern PR strategies used by politicians and companies today.
Marketing in the Ancient City of Pompeii
A history of marketing communication has also been uncovered in the ancient city of Pompeii – literally. Mount Vesuvius erupted in 79 AD, resulting in the tragic obliteration and burial of Pompeii and surrounding cities in Rome. The destructive force of this eruption left everything encased in thick layers of compacted ash and dirt, preserving them for centuries. Among the remains, historians and archeologists have uncovered “branded” artifacts with persuasive labeling, indicating that marketing existed long before it became a recognized term.
Newsworthy Fish Sauce Producer - Umbricius Scaurus
Umbricius Scaurus has become a widely recognized figure in Pompeii’s history for his popular liquamen or garum, a sweet and sour fish sauce commonly used in cooking during his time. According to Robert Curtis, an expert in ancient history – specifically, Pompeii and ancient food – approximately 29% of all inscribed fish sauce containers were produced by Scaurus.
Did you catch that? He said “inscribed,” which means the bottles had labels. Umbricius Scaurus’ bottles carried labels that said “the best liquamen” and “product of Scaurus.” He was branding his name and using persuasive language to promote his sauce as the best around. It turns out, Scaurus lived in a very lavish house for his time, so his boasting must have paid off.
The Tale of Two Wines - Vesuvinum & Surrentinum
Fish sauce bottles are not the only evidence to corroborate the history of marketing in antiquity. Archaeologists also uncovered ancient pottery around Mount Vesuvius, including titulus pictus, inscriptions on the pottery that described the product, its origin, and other information. Of particular interest were two titulus pictus found on pottery containers used for wine. One was labeled Vesuvinum and another Surrentinum metallianum, indicating that the winemakers were differentiating their wine by region.
However, much more interesting was the messaging discovered on excavated calices, Latin for cups, used to drink this ancient wine. For example, one reads, “do not accept calices born of some cheap dust, but rather the smooth shaping of a Surrentine potter’s wheel” or “are you drinking Surrentine wines? Don’t take up cups of mottled agate or a gold one—these wines will provide you with their own calices.” This messaging is clear – our wine is better and other wines – and their cups for imbibing – are inferior.
There was clearly some competition between the wines produced by these two ancient regions around Mount Vesuvius, and their labeling didn’t pull any punches.
Revolution Powered by Marketing - The Boston Tea Party
The Boston Tea Party was a political protest that occurred on December 16, 1773, at Griffin’s Wharf in Boston, Massachusetts – and also an example of what we refer to as “guerilla marketing.” Guerilla marketing, coined in the 80s, involves innovative, unconventional, and low-cost marketing techniques to obtain maximum exposure.
Planning to send a message and inspire support for “taxation without representation,” the Boston Tea Party participants dumped 342 chests of British imported tea into the Boston harbor. The event was the colonists’ first significant act of defiance to British rule, and it sent a clear message to Great Britain – Americans wouldn’t take taxation and tyranny sitting down. This historic event rallied American patriots across the 13 colonies to fight for independence.
P.T. Barnum - The Originator of Fake News
P.T. Barnum was the king of “spin”. He excelled at garnering free press and hype by providing “fake news” stories to the newspapers about his extraordinary exhibits – all of which turned out to be nothing more than elaborate hoaxes. There are countless examples of how Barnum spread false stories for publicity and profit, such as the FeeGee Mermaid event.
P.T. Barnum claimed to have obtained a real mermaid from Moses Kimball of the Boston Museum. To gain publicity and interest in his exhibit, he offered every newspaper in New York an ‘exclusive’ story about the specimen, even providing a woodblock illustration. The papers fell for the “fake news” and ran the story, resulting in a tidal wave of free publicity. Crowds turned out in droves to see the mermaid and accompanying lecture by Dr. J Griffin, a naturalist with the British Lyceum of Natural History. However, it turned out that not only was the mermaid a hoax, but Dr. Griffin and the British Lyceum of Natural History were fakes as well.