An Illustrated History of Outdoor Advertising

Outdoor advertising is a form of marketing which reaches consumers whilst they are outside of their homes. Today, outdoor advertising is a multi-billion dollar industry, encompassing a wide range of formats from the giant screens of New York’s Times Square to the bus shelter posters and lamppost banners found across the UK.

Whilst this industry continues to grow and flourish, it didn’t have quite such auspicious beginnings. In this blog we’ll take a look at the history of outdoor advertising and how it has evolved over time.

Large outdoor advertising screens in New York City, depicted in the wtyle of a watercolour painting

Evidence of recorded communication has been found from 60,000 years ago. In a rock shelter in South Africa, hundreds of fragments of ostrich eggshell were discovered, each covered with engraved geometric patterns. These may be the earliest known example of communication. In fact, it has been suggested that the symbols may indicate ownership, not unlike trademarks commonplace in advertising today.

Egg shell with engraved geometric lines

However, to find a definitive example of advertising, one which fits our ‘outdoor’ format, we need to fast forward far into the future. According to The Story of Advertising (1958), the earliest known written advertisement was discovered in the ruins of Thebes, known by the ancient Egyptians of the time as Waset. This was a papyrus written around 3000 BC by a clothmaker who was looking to retrieve one of his slaves. The transcript by the book’s author reads as follows:

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.

Clearly the spirit of enterprise was alive and well even before the construction of the Great Pyramids. The clothmaker neatly incorporated an advertisement for their wares within their message, in what might be the earliest example of content marketing!

A papyrus with hieroglypics - watercolour

To find the next advancement in outdoor advertising we need to jump forward to 960-1127 AD, which was the Northern Song period in imperial Chinese history. A copper plate from this period has been discovered, which is considered by many to be the earliest example of a printed advertising medium.

The copper plate is engraved with text which roughly translates to the below.

Jinan Liu’s Fine Needle Shop.

We buy high quality steel rods and make fine quality needles, to be ready for use at home in no time.

Identify the white rabbit as our mark.

Please remember ‘white rabbit’.

The plate enabled its user to quickly print posters onto square pieces of paper, and the design even included the family business’ rabbit logo.  Incredibly, this printing method pre-dated the European printing revolution by several centuries.

A copper plate engraved with Chinese script and rabbit emblem

One particularly well-known form of outdoor advertising is the use of sign-boards, a practice which has a long and rich history. Such signs appear to have developed independently in the East and West, and are known to have been used by ancient Egyptians, Greeks, Romans and Chinese.

In much of medieval Europe, inns were required to have sign-boards erected on their exterior. The images on these signs were useful for identifying the pubs, particularly as the majority of the population could read. In England, these signs also worked to identify pubs for official ‘ale conners‘ whose job was to taste and ensure the quality of ale, beer and bread. Whilst this may appear to be a desirable job today, the conners’ ability to impose fines made them unpopular with many pub landlords.

The use of such signs continues in many countries today, including in Britain, where red and white lions can be seen outside pubs up and down the country.

A pub called "The Red Lion" with a sign hanging outside of it.

Another method of early outdoor advertising came in the form of town criers and hawkers. Town criers were appointed to share news and announcements with the local population, and could be hired to promote the goods and services of local businesses.

Hawkers were also prevalent in this time, wandering merchants who would use street cries to promote their products in open-air markets. In fact, written references to the shouts of street sellers can be found which date back to ancient Rome and Pompeii.

A town crier at work, ringing a bell to gather attention. Watercolour painting style.

Our next step forward in the story of outdoor advertising in a big one, involving an invention which started the printing revolution. In Germany, around the year 1440, a goldsmith by the name of Johannes Gutenberg invented the movable-type printing press.

A single one of his machines could produce up to 3600 pages a day, a colossal improvement on other printing methods of the time. These presses rapidly spread across Europe, and ushered in the era of mass communication.

For the first time, societies were able to rapidly exchange information and ideas, leading to greater literacy rates whilst breaking the literate elite’s monopoly on education and learning. Along with books, the printing press enabled outdoor advertising formats to be mass-produced, including flyers, pamphlets and simple posters.

The Gutenberg printing press machine, depicted in watercolor

Our outdoor advertising journey continues with another leap forward in time, but for now, we’re remaining in Germany. In 1796, actor and playwright Alois Senefelder invented lithography, a ‘planographic’ printing process in which a design is drawn onto a flat surface, then affixed to paper via a chemical reaction.

Whilst technical difficulties initially held the medium back from widespread adoption, improvements in the process made mass production possible in the 1840s and 1850s, resulting in an explosion of lithographic posters being used in Europe and abroad.

These posters were used for all kinds of advertising, from promoting films and events to propaganda and political posters.

Old printed poster

Next up, billboards! These large format advertisements followed closely behind lithography, and grew rapidly with the advent of the automobile. Roadside billboards have become commonplace across most of the world, typically positioned in high traffic areas for maximum visibility.

Technology has continued to improve, and advanced materials and manufacturing techniques mean large, illuminated billboards can be safely hung in public spaces, promoting their messages to the surrounding population.

Other popular modern formats include lamppost banners, vehicle wraps and construction advertising.

A watercolour style image of a large billboard in a shopping centre

The penultimate step on our journey brings in digital technology at last. Digital signs and billboards have entered the modern outdoor advertising space alongside traditional print mediums.

Digital signs offer some alternative functionality to the classic print formats, with the ability to cycle through displays to advertise for multiple brands from a single location. These signs are highly visible at night, which can be particularly effective in areas such as Times Square and London’s Piccadilly Lights.

Today, digital and print outdoor advertising coexist effectively in cities around the world, with both formats continuing to grow each year. While print advertising offers a far greater abundance of sites at lower costs, digital adverts can offer additional dynamism and visibility.

A watercolour image of a large advertising screen on a building

We end our journey by looking at the future of outdoor advertising. Whilst the medium has undergone incredible changes over the centuries, there are undoubtedly more revolutions yet to come.

In the near future we may see drone light shows used for advertising purposes, with drones having already wowed the world in an incredible display during the Tokyo 2020 Olympics opening ceremony.

Elsewhere, researchers in Russia suggest that space advertising using satellites could be economically viable, giving advertisers the ability to display an advert over an entire city before moving quickly to the next!

Lastly in this ‘Age of AI’, it would seem remiss not to consider the effects this powerful new technology will have on advertising. From content creation to product recommendations, artificial intelligence will surely revolutionise the industry. Perhaps in the not-too-distant future you will be able to ‘try on’ clothing from a fashion retailer without even having to enter the store – by having a screen with a camera and an AI chip display a real-time video of you wearing whichever new item you choose.

Outdoor advertising has been around for millennia, but we have a feeling it’s only just getting started..

A drone in the sky at night

Bay Media are an independent out-of-home advertiser operating in the UK and Europe. We are the market leader in lamppost banner advertising in the UK, the exclusive provider of this service in many cities and boroughs across the country.

We also offer advertising support via other formats, included large illuminated banners in shopping centres and raised ‘6 sheet‘ posters along major roads.

Get in touch if you’d like to find out more about what we do.