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A short history of copywriting

The evidence for the earliest forms of copywriting is nearly as old as the earliest evidence for writing itself.

Many regard the first copywriting sample to be an ancient Egyptian papyrus dating from over 5,000 years ago, when in the year 3000BC a fabric vendor named Hapu was desperately looking for Shem – his enslaved worker who had run away.

On the papyrus, Hapu promised a gold piece for anyone who returned Shem to his shop where, in his words, “the best cloth is woven to your desires.”

Legend says that Hapu never found Shem, but that his business flourished thanks to his pithy encapsulation of the quality of his produce.

Though elements of the story of Hapu and Shem may be apocryphal, it underscores the enduring importance of persuasive communication in commerce – that is, copywriting – a practice that has evolved alongside human civilisation itself.

Read on to discover a short history of copywriting.

Copywriting started with the ancients

It is difficult to distinguish fact from legend in Hapu and Shem’s tale, and it isn’t until a few centuries after their time that the first verified evidence of copywriting appears.

Dating back to around 1200 BC, the “Tapputi-Belatekallim” tablet tells of Tapputi and Ninu, renowned perfumers in ancient Mesopotamia.

The tablet details their meticulous process and the exotic ingredients they employed. Notably, Tapputi is honoured with the title of “Belatekallim,” signifying her role as overseer. Historians take this to mean she worked within the royal household and must have been held in very high regard.

This tablet likely served as a promotional tool, showcasing the perfumers’ expertise and credentials to attract prestigious clientele.

So, the inclusion of the perfumers’ roles and their esteemed positions represents one of the earliest documented instances of marketing in history.

Copywriting continued to evolve in the Middle Ages but the printing press revolutionised the form

There is evidence of copywriting throughout the Middle Ages, including advertising bills printed on wood blocks in China.

One of the best-known advertisements from the time is dated to the late 12th century and advertises Jinan Liu’s Fine Needle Shop. The bill includes a drawing of a white rabbit holding a needle with writing beneath it that reads, “We buy high-quality steel rods and make fine-quality needles, to be ready for use at home in no time.”

But it was the invention of the printing press in the mid-15th century that revolutionised the entire writing industry.

This huge leap in technological advancement meant that books and pamphlets were published and widely distributed, and the early 17th century saw the development of the first newspapers.

By 1702, Britain had its first daily newspaper, The Daily Courant. The Courant included commercial advertisements to help offset printing and distribution costs.

The early adverts in The Courant were largely for books and medicines, but the range of products advertised rapidly increased, and the demand for copywriters grew.

The dawn of modern copywriting came in the late 19th century

John Emory Powers is known as the world’s first full-time copywriter and the “father of modern advertising”.

After writing adverts part-time for several years, Powers’ words caught the attention of Wanamaker’s department store in Philadelphia. They offered him a job writing six adverts a week, and copywriting as a modern profession was born.

Powers advocated a short punchy style that omitted any emotional words or vague notions. He said the most important element of copy was to grab the reader’s attention, and the second was to stick to the truth.

Following his departure from Wanamaker’s in 1886, Powers became a freelancer and was paid handsomely for his work, setting a precedent for countless copywriters who would later choose the freelance path.

Powers’ influence on advertising was huge. A few years after his death, one of his acolytes Claude C. Hopkins – who went on to become one of the 20th century’s most renowned copywriters – started a habit we now take for granted today.

In early 20th century America, brushing your teeth was not standard practice, with fewer than 10% of people doing so. Hopkins was enlisted by Pepsodent, a toothpaste company, to market their product and bring it to a wider audience.

He researched dental and oral hygiene and concluded that a substance he called “film” was responsible for the degradation of teeth and that brushing was the best way to get rid of it.

Users were offered a 10-day free trial with the promise that it was “a way to remove film that quickly restores brilliance.”

Hopkins employed a scientific approach to copywriting, grounded in evidence rather than branding. This method remains prevalent in marketing today and is still used to advertise many dental products.

Pepsodent quickly became the best-selling toothpaste in the American market and the number of people brushing their teeth in the US rose to 65% in just a few years.

So, in one fell swoop, Hopkins had revolutionised advertising and personal hygiene.

Copywriting is thriving in the digital age and the future promises new innovations

Over the course of the 20th century, the advertising industry rapidly expanded and the demand for copywriters rocketed.

With more talent brought into the fold, the world of marketing found new levels of creativity and innovation with countless iconic adverts and slogans from the era still resonating in minds today.

Then, on 27 October 1994, AT&T purchased a small rectangle of space on Wired magazine’s webpage, giving the internet its very first online advert and changing the world forever.

The onset of internet advertising brought a wealth of new marketing concepts, such as SEO and PPC, and most adverts you engage with now are likely to be online.

The introduction of AI and large language models is just the latest in a series of historical innovations that have advanced copywriting, and the future of copy will undoubtedly be as different as the past.

Yet, though modern marketing may be worlds apart from Hapu and the runaway Shem, the core principles of persuasive storytelling and effective communication endure.

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