Changing face of newspaper ads has its own story to tell

Have your say

“ADVERTISING”, the philosopher and author Marshall McLuhan once said, “is the greatest art form of the 20th Century.”

Many people would probably disagree but there’s no doubt it has become an inescapable part of our everyday lives. The growth of the internet has taken advertising to another level, but while technology has transformed the way in which we’re sold everything from washing machines to holidays, advertising is anything but a modern phenomenon.

Newspapers were, and still are, an important way of getting your message across. Today, newspaper adverts tend to divide roughly into two groups. The smaller “classified” ads are specific and personal and are there to inform – whether about items for sale, job vacancies, or friends or partners wanted.

The bigger “display” advertisements, are usually commercial and are designed to catch our eye, while adverts for some things like houses or cars can be either classified or display, or a bit of both.

The job of advertisements in the first newspapers back in the mid-17th century was largely to inform, although that wasn’t always the case. Those for products designed to cure all manner of ailments, from corns and minor aches to syphilis, would have struggled to get past today’s trading standards regulations. The Wright family, who owned the Leeds Intelligencer at the beginning, sold some of these quack medicines and the advertisements they ran for their dodgy cures made highly improbable claims about their efficacy.

There was also the “famous” Patent Ointment. “A never failing remedy for the itch in one night’s time. It entirely cleanses the body from all spots, blotches, scurvical itching or breakings-out whatsoever as thousands to their great joy have happily experienced.” If you didn’t have the itch, the newspaper advertised another snake-oil called Jackson’s Tincture which offered relief for almost everything else. “For rheumatism, gravel, stone, choleric or griping of the guts, or any such windy disorder. Likewise burns, scalds, bruises, strains, old ulcers or swellings of any kind it cures to admiration.”

Quite often the advertisements made better reading than the newspaper’s stories in those early days. There’s a directness and an attention to personal detail that many journalists at the time struggled to grasp. They reflect the busy ant-hill of 18th century life and through them you can begin to piece together a picture of the kind of society it was.

This one in the Intelligencer on March 16, 1762 was purely informative. “Abstract of the Act for granting to His Majesty several duties of windows and lights. The following rates and duties are to take place from and after 5th April 1762. Houses containing 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 and seven windows pay only for each house three shillings; 8 windows pay 11 shillings; 9 windows pay 12 shillings; 10 pay 13 shillings; 11 pay 14 shillings, 12 pay £1 1 shilling and every window above 12, 1/6d.”

The window tax was what we might call a progressive tax today – designed to fall most heavily on the better-off. It was reasoned the bigger the house, the more windows it was likely to have and the more the occupants would have to pay. Many tried to avoid it – this is the reason for the bricked-up windows so often seen in Georgian houses.

The history of newspaper advertising goes back to 1647 when the first one appeared for a book. The following year, a newspaper called the Impartial Intelligencer carried another from a gentleman in Suffolk who was offering a reward for two stolen horses.

From such lowly commercial beginnings advertisements grew into something that would change the basis of newspaper economics. And while the messages may have changed, the methods are still familiar.

Celebrate 260 years of historic front pages: Free downloads