Advertising – definition and meaning

Advertising is the business of drawing people’s attention to a good or service, it is a public promotion of a product, service, cause or a movement. The promotion is done through an advertisement (advert or ad) via the media – TV, Internet, newspapers, radio, trade journals, movie theaters, billboards, as well as store windows, restaurant placemats, sporting arenas, the side of vehicles, and side of buildings.

Advertising is usually done with a short film, sound recording (radio), or written notice that is presented to people to help make an announcement, encourage consumers to buy something or take some other kind of action.

Put simply, it is about telling people publicly about a good or service – the aim being to persuade them to buy it.


If there is an empty space and enough people looking at it, it is probably being used for some kind of advertising.

It is a marketing tactic that involves paying for space to promote a product, service, or even a cause or movement. The advertiser chooses the medium most likely to hit his or her target audience.

For example, if you want to promote a lawn mower, advertising in a gardening magazine makes more sense than a hairdressing journal.

According to the American Marketing Association, advertising is:

“The placement of announcements and persuasive messages in time or space purchased in any of the mass media by business firms, nonprofit organizations, government agencies, and individuals who seek to inform and/ or persuade members of a particular target market or audience about their products, services, organizations, or ideas.”


The five main elements of an advert are the: 1. Headline. 2. Subhead. 3. Body Copy. 4. Image. 5. Call to Action.

In some companies, advertising is part of the marketing department, while in others it is either a separate unit or that field is subcontracted to agencies.

Purpose of advertising

We all understand why companies advertise, however, explaining what its purpose is in words is not so easy. Companies mainly advertise to:

– make consumers aware of a product or service,

– convince consumers that a product or service is just right for their specific requirements – just what they need.

– generate desire for something.

– make people view a company favorably – enhance the company’s image.

– tell people about new goods or services

– back up sales people’s messages.

– trigger a response, such as to get consumers to request a sample, seek more information, or order something.

– direct consumers in the company’s direction.

Creating effective adverts

In any type of advert, even business-to-business ones, the viewer has to first be convinced to choose a product or service over another. To effectively accomplish this, the ad must have five main components:

Headline: a phrase to attract attention. Famous ones include: “How to win friends and influence people,” or “Want milk?” or “How I improved my memory in one evening,” or “Where’s the beef?”

Subhead: a sub-headline, a headline of its own on a smaller scale. It elaborates on the headline to pull the reader into the advert even more. Imagine the headline as the hook in fishing, while the subhead reels him or her in.

Body Copy: the main part of the ad; the part that provides the ‘meat’ of the communication. This is usually done by a professional copywriter. The features and benefits of the product or service are described here.

Image: virtually all types of advertising include a photo or image that illustrates the key benefit of whatever is being promoted. Only radio ads never have pictures.

Call-to-Action: an instruction to the viewer to do something. It usually contains an imperative phrase such as ‘find out more’, ‘visit a store today,’ ‘request a free sample,’ or ‘call now’. The call-to-action (CTA) might be a simple non-demanding request like ‘watch this video’ or ‘choose a color’. Some marketing strategies combine a series of small CTAs which create a pattern of behavior that makes it easier for the viewer to follow through with just one last CTA.


Adverts today are quite different compared to sixty or one hundred years ago. No ad today would have Santa Claus promoting the benefits and pleasures of cigarette smoking!

Advertising is not cheap – it is a more expensive way of getting a message seen or heard compared to other marketing strategies. That is why it is more commonly used by large companies and brands than small commercial enterprises.

Your target customer

When you attempt to target your message to individuals who are more likely to be attracted by your advertising – people who will probably want or need your product or service and be willing to spend their hard-earned cash on it – you should look at some demographic features, such as:

– age

– gender

– academic level

– socioeconomic level (income level)

– zip code (UK: post code)

If you are willing to pay for the information, you could also get lists of people according to what they have been buying, their hobbies, types of jobs, whether or not they have children, etc.

The more precisely you can define who your target consumer is, the better and more effectively your advertising vehicles will be – you will reach more of your target customers for less expenditure.

If you are promoting a taxi service in a suburb of London or Miami, you would not consider placing an expensive ad in the Wall Street Journal – advertising in local papers, shop windows, local radio and roadside billboards in those suburbs would be more effective.

coca-cola-ads-with-polar-bearAccording to the Coca-Cola Company, it first used the Polar Bear in advertising in France in 1922.

History of advertising

Advertising has been around for several thousand years. The ancient Egyptians used papyrus to make wall posters and send sales messages. Papyrus is a thick type of paper made from the pith of the papyrus plant.

Political campaign displays and commercial messages have been unearthed in the ruins of ancient Arabia and Pompeii. In Ancient Greece and Rome, lost and found adverts on papyrus were common.

Rock or wall painting for commercial advertising is a marketing strategy that dates back to 4000 BC. This marketing approach has been discovered in many parts of South America, Africa and Asia.

From the 11th to 7th centuries BC in ancient China, bamboo flutes were played to sell candy.

As cities started to grow in the Middle Ages in Europe, adverts promoting specific trades, such as blacksmiths, tailors or cobblers began to emerge. As most people were illiterate, images were used instead of words. A tailor’s image was a suit, a jeweler’s was a diamond, and a horse shoe represented a blacksmith.

City squares had carts and wagons from which sellers sold fruits and vegetables. Their proprietors used town criers (street callers) to walk up and down the streets announcing where they were and what they sold.

In 18th century Britain, adverts started appearing in weekly newspapers. These early print ads were used mainly to promote newspapers, books and medications.

As false advertising started to grow, the authorities began to introduce advertising regulations.

Thomas James Barratt (1841-1914), chairman of the soap manufacturer A&F Pears, was a pioneer of brand marketing and is known today as ‘the father of modern advertising’. He created a very effective advertising campaign for his company’s soaps, which included the use of target phrases, images and slogans.

Mr. Barratt’s famous phrase – “Good morning. Have you used Pears’ soap?” – became famous in its day and right into the 20th century.

As the global economy expanded during the 19th century, so did advertising. In the United States, mail-order advertising emerged and grew rapidly.

Radio, TV & Internet

The first radio stations appeared in the early 1920s. Retailers and radio equipment manufacturers set up the first stations, followed by non-commercial organizations, including clubs, civic groups and schools.

It soon became common for programs to be sponsored by a single business in exchange for a brief mention of its name at the beginning and end of the show.

Radio station owners soon learned that they could significantly increase their earnings by selling short slots to multiple businesses throughout the day, before, during and after their shows. In the 1950s, TV advertising took off.

In the 1980s and early 1990s cable TV, and particularly MTV became huge vehicles for advertisers. Some specialty TV channels appeared, including the Home Shopping Network, QVC and ShopTV Canada.

The Internet has changed how advertisers allocate their budgets during the 21st century. The advent of the ad server allowed online advertising to explode, which contributed to the dot-com boom of the late 1990s.

Since the beginning of this century, online advertising has been dominated by the search engines like Google and social networking websites like Facebook.

To sponsor is similar to advertising, but not exactly the same. The specific attributes of a product or service are not mention in sponsorship. Sponsorship, unlike advertising, cannot stand alone.

Video – What is advertising?

In this IAB video, digital advertising experts talk about their field and what it means.