The history of copywriting

The interesting history of copywriting. It’s older than you think!

There is a certain level of peculiarity that comes with being a copywriter that goes beyond simply being a writer or working in marketing. Of course, I’m completely biased but it feels like a strange set of skills that I’ve stolen from history and that I’m disguising under new tech. Do you ever get that feeling about your job? I can imagine visual artists, doctors and yoga teachers might feel similar or at least understand what I’m getting at.

Advertising copywriting has existed since Babylonian times and the first printed material is said to have come into the world in 1477, promoting the sale of a prayer book.

The history of copywriting dates back to when the first printed papers were distributed on the street. The actual word “copywriting” means the act of writing words to sell products. The copywriter is the person who does this, often found in ad agencies or at home as a freelancer.

The job of a copywriter began by creating ads on a large poster made of paper with a feather dipped ink (how deliciously antiquated and time consuming). These posters were fixed to walls and poles in the bigger cities of Europe. Centuries ago there were no printing processes to make duplicates, so each page was painstakingly handcrafted. Creating such ads was more of an art and it sounds incredibly meditative to me.

Eventually, they evolved to printed pamphlets and brochures and became much smaller in size as printing in its new evolution was a complicated and lengthy process, so the smaller the item, the faster it was.

Once mass printing processes were perfected, around 1605, newspapers could be mass produced and hawked on street corners. The first English paper was produced in 1664, called the Oxford Gazette (now known as the London Gazette). It was when the larger format newspapers were published that advertisements began to appear on one full page or several ads were dispersed throughout the pages. What a glorious time that must have been for copywriters as there wasn’t quite the saturated market, you could have more effect on people and their purchasing or social decisions.  

The beginning of freelance copywriting

history of copywriting
John Emory Powers, first professional copywriter

It has been suggested that the first person to work as an official independent copywriter was John Emory Powers (thanks dude). He lived from 1837 to 1919 and was the first person to have this job fulltime and instead of working for a newspaper, he worked for the popular department stores of Lord & Taylor and Wanamaker’s. These stores recognised the importance of creating excellent ads that would stand out in newspapers and magazines. He created six ads a week. I’d like that kind of work load!

He is deemed the ‘father of modern creative advertising’ by creating one of the most controversial ads of the era, in his signature straight talking style, that ended up selling out stock in a number of hours. Truth telling was his gimmick and it seemed to work!

‘Suddenly, everything I’d seen in direct mail and all the ads I’d seen made sense. Give people a reason why they should buy a product,’ Clayton Makepeace.

The value of copywriting

The value of copywriting was finally recognised around the 1800s. The copywriter would make advertisements that would capture the attention of consumers. For the Wanamaker’s store, they quickly doubled their yearly revenues.

Where advertising used to be more of a gamble and a risk taking venture from the thirties to the sixties, today it is one that is unavoidable and if you don’t include it in your marketing plan you are already behind your competitors. In 2017, there was a global advertising spend of approximately $688 billion (in AUD). That is off the charts!

‘The man who stops advertising to save money is like the man who stops the clock to save time,’ Thomas Jefferson.

One of the most prominent and influential copywriters of the past century was Robert Collier, who started the direct mail phenomenon in the thirties, utilising emotional connecting and psychological techniques. He later became a bestselling and famous new age and self development author.

It wasn’t really until recently that training and education became formalised for copywriting, perhaps with exception of on the job training and mentoring. 

history of copywriting today

​Copywriting doesn’t last long

Copywriting is almost instantly obsolete, which is bizarre considering how much time, skill and sheer effort goes into it. It’s even more bizarre to think how influential that copywriting is. I could craft a content article or digital ad today that could affect hundreds of people enough to buy a product or a service that could change their life or, at the very, least change perspective on the way they had previously viewed something. 

‘Ads, like butterflies, have short lives.’ 

With real time feedback and digital analytics, copywriters and content marketers have instantaneous feedback and can tell whether the copy is working more than ever and campaign cycles are much quicker. So now we have to be faster and more accurate and create something that gets results within a 24-48 hour cycle. No pressure!

history of copywriting

Copywriting today

Today’s modern copywriter does more than simply write copy for newspaper or magazine ads. With ecommerce growing at a rate of at least seventeen per cent per year and content marketing becoming a universal marketing tactic employed by ninety per cent of businesses worldwide, a copywriter now has to be proficient in writing for the web with a sound knowledge of SEO best practices. Copywriters may also write copy for book jackets, food and product packaging, name floral bouquets (I actually did this once), write about technology trends in healthcare (done this too), write meta data descriptions for sunglasses (yes, tick this one off the list), write media releases about musicians and authors and so it goes.

A worthy copywriter is also responsible for helping websites achieve good SEO rankings involving strategic placement of common keywords that consumers are likely to be searching for, in amongst web copy and content articles without making it seem awkward and unreadable and like it’s been written by a drunk robot.  

Despite the medium and shelf life of copywriting changing, there are still some rock solid facets of copywriting that haven’t changed over its lifetime. They are:

  • the need for impeccable storytelling
  • using emotional persuasion
  • brevity
  • uniqueness
  • audience focussed.

The Australian copywriter’s focus has undeniably shifted considerably from print to the internet (it has had to!) over the past decade but one thing is unchanging throughout the history of copywriting is that copywriting will continue to be one of the best ways to promote businesses, organisations, services and products. And is truly an artform that every marketing strategy can reap benefits from. 

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