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
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.
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.
Because of the adoption of radio broadcast advertising, brands also began to shift from product-centered marketing. Instead of listing the features of the product and picturing the products prominently on the ads, brands began to rely on value-driven marketing. Brands were creating personas that could be used to market their products on an emotional level, rather than from a practical view of the product. Consumers would then purchase based on their emotional response.
Radio and its dramatized performances may have helped to shape this emotion-driven advertising, since brands were now employing actors to sell their products through their dramatic performances. Radio also required live performances for these commercials, necessitating actors from the companies to be present during the broadcast.
Fun fact: Bing Crosby was the first to pre-record his broadcasts. In the 1930s, he was the most played voice over the radio in the United States. Because of the physical demands on his voice, he had it written into his contract that pre-recorded versions of the broadcasts could be done well in advance of the broadcast date. (American Masters: Bing Crosby Rediscovered by PBS is a fabulous resource for more info on Bing Crosby’s radio innovations.)
1930s: History of Influencer Marketing
While the previous decades had seen their fair share of celebrity endorsements, the 1930s is where this advertising practice reached astronomical proportions. Woodbury Soap, which later became known as Jergens, used celebrities in almost all of their advertisements. They also pioneered emotion-driven advertising, making the salacious “The skin you love to touch” slogan well-known throughout the United States.
Meanwhile, Palmolive soap used the famous Dionne Quintuplets in their advertising to show off how their soap was gentle to the infants’ skin. The Dionne Quintuplets were national celebrities and the first set of quintuplets to survive infancy. They were even a headlining event on stages across America, as well as appearing in newsreels and documentaries.
Lever Brothers out-celebritied all the other soap companies of the 1930s with their “9 out of 10 screen stars care for their skin with Lux toilet soap” campaign which featured a star-studded lineup, including Clara Bow, Joan Crawford, Janet Gaynor, Billie Dove, and other silver screen starlets of the time.
1931: Santa Becomes an Influencer for Coca-Cola
Coca-Cola changed the game for character marketing ( a precursor to influencer marketing) when they launched Santa Clause as their spokesperson in 1931. Artist Fred Mizen painted Santa Clause with the iconic round cheeks and bushy beard. Previous versions of Santa Clause had differed widely in their overall look.
Coca-Cola was so effective in distributing their marketing across America that the version of Santa Clause from their advertising became the standard look for this character. They actually changed the look of a Christmas tradition through their advertisements!
1940s: History of Influencer Marketing
The 1940s were affected most by World War II and saw fewer innovations than the decades before. During the war, advertisements were made with “pinup girls” so that soldiers could repurpose the ads as posters to decorate their bunks. Similarly, the women at home were buying products that allowed them to repurpose the packaging to fulfill other needs.
Print and radio advertisements were still the driving forces behind product marketing. Additionally, television was gathering momentum in the mid-to-late 1940s. Still considered a luxury rather than a household necessity, televisions were increasing in popularity. In 1945, the National Broadcasting Company (NBC) started the first regularly scheduled television programming, allowing families to gather around the television to receive their news, entertainment, and best of all, advertising.
1950s: History of Influencer Marketing
Starlets were the defining feature of advertisements in the 1950s. Lustre-Cremé shampoo ads used the tagline “favored by 4 out of 5 top Hollywood stars” in their print advertisements, according to Victoria Sherrow. These Hollywood stars included Marilyn Monroe, Elizabeth Taylor, Betty Hutton, Jane Russell, June Allyson, and others. Ads appeared in Vogue, Ladies Home Journal, Good Housekeeping, and magazines aimed at female readers.
Another trope of 1950s advertisements is the helpless housewife. When celebrities weren’t on display, advertisements often pictured housewives trying to fix a problem, like opening a ketchup bottle by themselves or avoiding dry skin on their hands from doing dishes. The advertisements pictured average families of the time period, something that influencers today share with their 1950s counterparts.
The “Everyman” of Advertising
David Ogilvy, widely considered the “father of modern advertising” also began to develop advertising techniques which would be widely adopted in the 1950s. It was David Ogilvy who said “I do not regard advertising as entertainment or an art form, but as a medium of information.” Working at George Gallup’s Audience Research Institute, Ogilvy pioneered techniques that were based on meticulous market research, presenting the product based on consumer information, rather than on the literal presentation of the product.
His most popular phrase was “The customer is not a moron, she’s your wife,” insisting that the customer be treated as intelligent. His techniques also went away from celebrity endorsements (although he did have an iconic advertising campaign with Eleanor Roosevelt selling Good Luck Margarine in 1959). Instead, he focused on showing the product in the lives of the people he was selling to, allowing them to see versions of themselves in the advertising. Although he moved away from celebrities, in many ways the principles still affect influencer marketing today. Influencers are able to present the products and their recommendations as people who are relatable to their audience and their sponsored posts are effective because the audience can picture the product in the context of their own lives when seeing the influencer’s content.
1970s: History of Influencer Marketing
Hair played a major role in the trends of the 1970s. Dorothy Hamill, Olympic gold-medal figure skating champion, did an ad campaign with Clairol hair care products that resulted in the popularization of the Dorothy Hamill haircut and a co-branded partnership with Clairol for their new line of hair products “Short and Sassy.” In this simple ad campaign, her popularity as an athlete and celebrity actually fueled the hair craze of women walking into salons to request the “Dorothy Hamill.”
Similarly, Farrah Fawcett started her own style, the “Farrah Flip,” which began with her ad campaigns with Wella Balsam shampoo and conditioner, as well as her iconic role on the Charlie’s Angels TV show.
1990s: History of Influencer Marketing
The 1990s ushered in one of the biggest shifts in communication since the adoption of the television in the 1950s and the establishing of radio before that. With the invention and adoption of the internet, consumers could now receive more information about the products that they purchased from a variety of sources.
The internet also opened up opportunities for brands to reach consumers in new ways. Whether it was banner ads or online articles, brands could now reach consumers where they were browsing and at all hours. Television, radio, and print no longer limited them. Instead, the internet allowed brands to reach consumers in every corner of every page in every corner of the internet. The possibilities were suddenly as limitless as the internet.
The decade saw brands and companies setting up websites to satisfy the needs of their audience. The 1990s also saw the internet becoming more readily available to ordinary people. People could set up websites with increasing ease and the internet would become more and more accessible to the average person into the present day.
2000s: History of Influencer Marketing
If the 1990s saw the explosion of the internet, then the 2000s was the rise of the blog. Typepad, Diaryland, Diary-X, and LiveJournal recorded thoughts so they could be shared and viewed. As the decade continued, blogs became a way to share information and to spread thought leadership. “Mommy bloggers” also gained popularity sharing about their lifestyle, home, and everyday life. Bloggers became mini celebrities as they gained a following of email subscribers and readers.
In 2006, BlogHer (a blogging community and media company) announced their blog ad network, allowing bloggers to monetize their blog traffic and actually earn income from their blog. Blogging transitioned from a hobby into a viable career for many successful bloggers, paving the way for the influencers that followed.
The 2000s also ushered in the age of social media. MySpace launched in 2003, followed by Facebook in 2004 and Twitter in 2006. Social media was a way of sharing everyday life, that was shorter and easier than blogging platforms.
As both blogging and social media gained steam, users began amassing large followings who enjoyed their content. Brands quickly saw opportunities to get the word out about their products by supporting these content creators. However, the next decade would see the explosion of this new type of marketing.
2010s: History of Influencer Marketing
The 2010s launched the term “influencer” into the common vernacular (i.e. “everyday lingo”). The users with the most followers on their blogs and social profiles were able to establish trust with their audience. These followers followed the recommendations from these new influencers. A single post from an influencer could spur action from their audience as people flocked to the latest trends. Now, information spread with a speed unparalleled with other mediums. Trends started in an instant and became passe the next.
If you thought celebrity endorsements were out of fashion, think again! Instead, celebrities opened up on social media and became just as personable as the influencers that were gaining power. In 2010, Old Spice launched “The Man Your Man Could Smell Like” campaign advertising their deodorants and colognes. The campaign starred Isaiah Mustafa who not only embraced the character, but became an influencer in his own right on his own social profiles. The campaign quickly went viral as it spread across social media. Old Spice sales more than doubled, web traffic shot up by 300%, and they became the #1 men’s body wash brand. One influencer combined with a brand character forever changed Old Spice.
Influencers are continuing to gain prominence in digital marketing for brands as the decade progresses. 70% of Millennials now trust the recommendations of influencers and celebrities, showing the power of influencer marketing. Influencers are beginning to develop their personal brands into complete businesses, like the beauty influencers releasing their own lines of makeup or art influencers releasing art supply subscription boxes.
The History of Influencer Marketing and the Future
A whopping 92% of consumers trust recommendations from the people they follow on social media, according to Experticity. With such a high value placed on influencer recommendations and the recommendations from a person’s network on social media, influencer marketing will only grow from here.
However, if the history of influencer marketing is any indication, the line between celebrities and influencers will continue to blur. Now, celebrities use more personal means of communication with their fans, and influencers continue to rise and attain celebrity status. Brands will continue to partner with both celebrities and influencers to grow their business. However, the messages used by influencers and celebrities will become increasingly approachable. Consumers will continue to tune out anything that feels too sales-focused.
Influencer marketing continues to be one of the fastest growing areas of digital marketing. Influencer marketing will rise to meet the need for genuine marketing to highly targeted segments of people around the world.