The Convoluted History of Influencer Marketing

Sarah Donawerth
Sarah Donawerth
The Convoluted History of Influencer Marketing

The history of influencer marketing dates back to the beginning of human existence. Influencers at their core are people who can give a message to their audience. We place a higher value on messages received from friends and acquaintances, which is the basis for influencer marketing. Whether you look at ancient Egypt or medieval England (or Pope Francis claiming Mary mother of Jesus as the first influencer), you see examples again and again of “message givers” that share certain traits with modern influencers.

Can you see the similarities in these historical counterparts?

Ancient and Medieval Times

Town Criers

The oldest connection to modern-day influencers appear to be the town criers of ancient towns and cities. These municipal servants, popular in medieval England, were responsible for yelling the latest news to the mostly illiterate townsfolk. In England, they would start their message with “Oyez, oyez, oyez!” and and their message with “God save the King!” (Source: Historic UK). They would also post a notice on the door of the local inn for anyone who missed the initial reading. Town criers were the primary means for communicating news within the towns and therefore, were very influential in spreading information.

A History of Influencer Marketing
Photo by Dom J from Pexels

In addition to this, they also functioned as night watchmen, announcers at public hangings, auctioneers, and record keepers of the town’s important information. In fact, they were so vital to communities that it was considered treason against the monarch to harm a crier!

Their link to modern-day influencers began when companies hired them to advertise in their cries. They would yell about the local products and services during their daily duties. Street peddlers also used a system or cries to sell their wares for many years. Imagine an influencer today with the following of an entire town! Town criers carried the news for an entire community, and were a mode of communications for medieval towns and cities.

With the rise of literacy over the centuries, the town crier slowly became obsolete. However, if you are ever in Chester, England, you can still hear the crier at High Cross. Here, they have read proclamations since the Middle Ages.

1700s: History of Influencer Marketing

Kingfluencer George, or King George III as you know him (Yes, from the musical Hamilton) became a celebrity endorser in the 1760s when he helped to establish Wedgwood pottery. In giving Josiah Wedgwood his royal stamp of approval, Wedgwood was able to publicize the endorsement and boost his reputation, as well as greatly bolstering his sales. Today, Wedgwood is still a well known name in the pottery industry. King George III was the royal endorsement that helped to set him apart from other potters of the time.

1800s: History of Influencer Marketing

With the 1800s, literacy increased and newspapers became the way that information traveled through the land. Newspapers also started selling ad space in order to boost their revenue. With that innovation came the rise of celebrity endorsements. Famous actresses, writers, and performers began lending their image to product ads to lend credibility.

Actress Lillie Langtry endorsed Pond’s Extract Cream. Even women’s suffrage leader Elizabeth Cady Stanton endorsed “Fairbank’s Fairy Soap” in 1899, saying “I find it delightful. It leaves the skin soft and velvety and I particularly like it because it is as free from odor as the air and sunshine.” (Source: For Appearance’s Sake: The Historical Encyclopedia of Good Looks, Beauty and Grooming by Victoria Sherrow).

1850s: Jenny Lind

Jenny Lind (yes, the singer from The Greatest Showman) was also an early adopter of paid celebrity endorsements. She was known as the “Swedish Nightingale.” Lind became the day’s biggest celebrity when she toured the United States in the 1850s with P.T. Barnum. With the help of P.T. Barnum’s amazing marketing tactics, promotional and souvenir items pictured her likeness and sold across the country. However, this was not the same as the concert merch we know today. These products were created by every company who could get their hands on her likeness (whether they paid her or not). Her face was printed on everything from paper dolls to cigar boxes.

1890: Aunt Jemima & Promotional Characters

In addition to paid celebrities, marketers also adopted spokespeople that worked in a way very similar to influencers. Nancy Green was hired by the R.T. Davis Milling Company to become the face of Aunt Jemima pancake mix. She did sittings for the artist renderings that appeared on the packaging. She was also loaned out for promotional events so that she could appear in character to recommend the pancake mix.

These characters promoted everything from Frosted Flakes (Tony the Tiger) to Gerber foods (Gerber Baby) and paved the way for influencer marketing in later years. In creating these characters, marketers and brands were establishing trust by using a face that could become familiar to customers. More than a hundred years later, brands continue using familiar faces from social media to establish this same feeling of trust and authenticity.

1900s: History of Influencer Marketing

At the turn of the century, newspaper ads were still the chief mode of advertising for brands. However, the 20th century would see the invention and adoption of radio, television, and even the internet. In this age of technology, brands began having additional methods to spread the word about their products, leading to innovations in the way that they used celebrity endorsements or influencers. The history of influencer marketing shows a gradual transition to these new forms of technology.

Celebrity endorsements continued to rule the day for most of the 1900s. Pond’s Cold Cream even mentioned in their ads that the Queen of Romania was a satisfied customer. This led to a surge of new customers who wanted the “royal treatment.”

1920s: History of Influencer Marketing in Radio

In the 1920s, radio began to spread through the United States and it became a household fixture. Brands were no longer limited to the world of print. Instead, they could bring storytelling to life through the new medium. “Soap operas” of the tie actually earned their name because of the soap ads that ran during the serials. The term soap opera continues today to refer to sentimental and melodramatic programming, just as it did when soap companies were scooping up ad time in the 1920s.

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