The earliest record of a direct advertisement is allegedly from an Egyptian landowner who advertised for the return of a lost slave. The papyrus is now exhibited in the British Museum and is said to date from around 1000 B.C. We don't know if the 'campaign' was effective or not, only that it is the first recorded example of its kind in the world.
The next time we hear of any form of direct marketing is with the Babylonians and their infamous brick mail. They apparently used to distribute advertising to people using a form of a brick or clay block. How effective this was is anybody's guess. Considering that very few people outside the political or religious elite could read or write, I would say the result would have been negligible at best.
It wasn't for another two thousand years or so, sometime around 1480 that the next example of it appeared. William Caxton printed pamphlets to order from his printing press in Westminster Abbey. The only known surviving example is now on display in the Bodleian library in Oxford.
Later, in 1673 another pamphlet was printed entitled, "An Essay to Revive the Ancient Education of Gentle-women in Religion, Manners and Tongues." The footnote to this essay was an advertisement for a boarding school for girls. This is widely attributed as being the first "service" manual ever produced.
After that we have to travel to the United States where a pamphlet was published by a man named William Penn in 1681. The pamphlet was designed to stimulate emigration to Pennsylvania which was also reprinted into Dutch and German, which might just be the first multi-language direct marketing media in existence. Penn went on to some success printing marketing pamphlets and other materials.
Back to England, the year 1780 and the marriage of George III's eldest daughter. This occasion prompted a short essay on politics which was designed to disguise a rather blatant advert for a portable washing machine!
The earliest UK direct marketing campaign that is credited with results was a pamphlet for a funeral parlour in London in 1825. This was one of the first documented "pre-pay" funeral systems in which prospective clients could pay for their funeral over a period of six months, in advance. This was apparently successful with over 1100 people taking him up on the offer.
While technology and marketing methods have certainly advanced since then, the basic premise hasn't. The idea of attempting to influence someone through written media using words alone is still the basis of direct marketing today.
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