The evolution of copywriting

How has copywriting developed through the ages? How has it responded to cultural changes? And perhaps most importantly, what does it all mean for us today? As a copywriter with a penchant for all things vintage, I’ve always taken an interest in the history of our craft. But I’d never really thought about it critically.

Ancient ads

As Carl Sagan puts it, you have to know the past to understand the present. So let’s go back. Waaaaaaay back. Our journey begins in Phebes, Ancient Egypt, with the world’s oldest known ad, The Papyrus of Slave Shem.

Now I know what you’re thinking – this dude needs an art director, right? But this early form of advertising tells us something about the origins of copy. At first glance, it appears the writer, a master called Hapu, is offering a reward for the return of his slave, but Hapu is actually slyly plugging his rug store, where “the most beautiful fabrics are woven for each person’s taste”.

So there you have it. Big attention-grabbing headline. Very sneaky call to action. Although advertising has changed beyond all recognition over the last 3,000 years, some things never change.

Word gets around

As much fun as it’s been researching ancient ads, copywriting didn’t really get going until the invention of the printing press in the 15th century. With the first newspapers came the first newspaper ads, and for the first time, copy found a medium that didn’t rely on someone walking past a sign. With the power to spread information, some chose to spread misinformation instead…

By the time the 1800s roll around, advertising had emerged as an industry and messages had adapted to their principal medium. Copy had become very news-like and informative, with a clear, structured argument for the product in question.

Fast-forward to the 1940s and things look very different. But art direction aside, the structure of the message is more or less unchanged. Copywriters are still leading with facts and product benefits. In this advert for Camels cigarettes, we can also see the emergence of a brand, which might point to increased competition.

All change in the 60s

In the 1960s, the advertising industry boomed with agencies sprouting up in major cities like London and New York. The relationship between art and copy blossomed and advertising became more conceptual, paving the way for the modern ad campaign. In these examples, you can see it was no longer enough to merely inform. You had to entertain too.

One of my favourite campaigns from this era has to be this ad suite for Wolfschmidt’s Vodka:

The 60s redefined everything, from music and art to politics and culture. The role of a copywriter was transformed too. Now the task was not only to sell a product, but to create an emotional hook. Advertising began to speak to a culture, describe a mood or support a cause.

In my mind, the advent of TV had a big impact too. With reduced attention spans, there was a need for copywriters to deliver shorter, punchier headlines. And with advertisers attempting to link all their activity together, slogans and straplines became more commonplace too. Enter the integrated campaign.

21st century copywriting

In 1964, Marshall McLuhan coined the famous phrase, “the medium is the message.” Although it’s more of a social commentary, it rings true for advertising. Through the ages it’s been shaped by the technology and the dominant media of the time. In today’s fast-paced and competitive media environment, where we can access anything with a swipe on our phones, copy has to work even harder to deliver results.

But if there’s a lesson to be learnt from all of this, it’s that today’s copywriters need to be incredibly versatile. From traditional print to digital display advertising, storytelling campaigns to no-frills SEO copy, there’s no end of mediums for us to choose from today. And with social media, it’s no longer a one-way street. There’s a constant conversation happening and brand copy sets a tone for everything.

To write effectively for all of today’s mediums is no easy feat. But it’s a challenge every copywriter has faced since the dawn of advertising. So next time you’re struggling on a brief, take comfort in that.

Written by:

Cameron Taylor Copywriter


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