The Creative History of Marketing from Advertising Art to Graphic Design

Photo Credit: POLA Studio

How the history of visual communication and advertising art paved the way for the graphic design practices that make up today’s creative marketing campaigns

Whether painting symbols on stones or creating digital ads, people have always found a way to convey their message to others visually. Over the years, advertising artists and graphic designers have shaped how businesses speak with consumers. Visual communication’s ever-evolving nature has solidified its importance in creative marketing today. Without visual art, creative marketing would be incredibly challenging and may not exist.

The Purpose of Art in Advertising and Marketing

Advertising artists and graphic designers use color, text, and images to communicate and visually evoke certain emotions from viewers. Graphics grab attention, colors incite feelings, and the text provides valuable information. Using artwork in advertising streamlines different modes of communication into one graphic that fits into the fast-paced marketing world.

The Difference Between Advertising Art and Graphic Design

Advertising art, or advertising design, and graphic design overlap in many ways, but key factors make each specialization vastly different. Advertising art is a segment of graphic design. All advertising artists are graphic designers, but not all graphic designers specialize in advertising art.

Graphic design goes deeper than surface level. The scope of work involved in graphic design includes typography, branding, logo development, and visual identity. While graphic design focuses on developing a brand identity, advertising art focuses on using it to create visually appealing artwork that produces sales.

Throughout history, advertising artists and graphic designers worked together to create some of the most famous ad campaigns. However, these roles have evolved. Presently, most graphic designers take on the work of advertising artists, combining the two roles into one.

The Earliest Accounts of Advertising

For as long as humans have been communicating, advertising has existed. Historians often trace advertising back to the Paleolithic era, when paper and pencil did not exist. Painting or carving symbols and images on stone helped prehistoric people communicate with other tribes. These drawings helped to notify people of the time of significant events and news updates.

Advertising methods changed as the world evolved and people invented new technology. In ancient Egypt, people began to use papyrus to create posters for events or celebrations. In the 1400s, technology changed drastically with Johannes Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press.

Although machines could now print posters, signage, and pamphlets, artists still had to draw or paint pictures, or advertising art, by hand. At the time, hand-drawn pictures had to be transferred to wood engravings on printing blocks for printing presses. Shakespeare partook in advertising art for his plays by hanging posters, or bills, on posts back in the Elizabethan era.

From the Paleolithic era to the Elizabethan era, the modes of advertising changed considerably. Still, the 1900s bore more evolution to advertising artwork than one could imagine.

The Modern Evolution of Advertising Art

By the 1900s, companies, publications, and politicians began producing advertising art for the masses. Printing presses became faster and more detailed to fit the needs of communicating with growing populations. Throughout the 20th century, the expansion of advertising art quickened and jumpstarted what is now known as creative marketing.

The 1900s to the 1920s

Photo Credit: RBKC Library

By 1900, printed media in color had become more common. With the popularization of magazines in the late 18th century, companies began to see promise in using publications to promote their products.

Jell-O, the famous food company, leaped by producing a free recipe book in 1904. The book’s cover artwork features kewpies helping a young girl cook with the product. The cover also stated the product’s price, 10 cents per package, in text. Most brands didn’t partake in extensive advertising or marketing campaigns then — this campaign was monumental.

In 1919, Derry and Toms, a drapery business, hired F Gregory Brown to create a colorful stamp collection. Each stamp featured colorful illustrations of clothing, jewelry, or housewares. Finding the most niche artist to create advertising content became a trend that continued throughout the 1900s.

The 1930s to the 1950s

Photo Credit: Lifesavers (1943). All American Ads 90s (348).

In the mid-1900s, advertising campaigns became more advanced than ever before. Magazines remained a primary mode of business advertisement and proliferated in the 1950s. Still, companies only invested in one or two large advertising projects each year. These elongated timelines gave them the budget to put great thought into each campaign.

Shell-Mex, a petroleum company, employed several visual artists for its campaigns throughout the 1930s. One of the most iconic advertising artists and graphic designers of the time, Edward McKnight Kauffer, designed an abstract poster for the company in 1935.

In 1948, Life Savers published an ad in Life Magazine that set the standard for creative advertising. The ad placement in a magazine with a similar namesake hit home for readers. The creative included an illustration of a stoplight with Life Savers candies in place of the red, yellow, and green lights. The copy brought it all together by stating, “Stop — for a delicious treat. Caution — accept only the candy with the hole. Go — pick up a handy package. Still only five cents.”

The creative advertising of the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s influenced the boom of advertising and marketing to come in the 1960s. A new era of individuality and countercultural movements was on the horizon.

The 1960s to the 1980s

The late 1900s were full of new music, traditions, and fashions. All of which influenced magazines, posters, and advertisements. In this era, poster-making, animation, and pop art took over in ads. By the 1960s, television replaced radio as the world’s leading digital information source. Artists used funky fonts, contrasting colors, and psychedelic themes to create graphics and animations to attract their desired audiences. The artwork of the time reflected the culture, and the advertising reflected all of the above.

The counterculture of the 1960s brought wild graphics and originality into the advertising spotlight. Canadian artist, Bob Masse, created some of the most iconic rock music posters in the 1960s. Music artists like Pink Floyd, Grateful Dead, Fleetwood Mac, and Janis Joplin hired him to create eye-catching posters to advertise their events.

In the late 1970s, the famous denim brand Levi’s tapped into the psychedelia of the times to create memorable advertising. The brand released a series of animated television ads centered around themes of existentialism and individuality. The commercials included animations of people or odd characters wearing multicolored Levi’s pants. The psychedelia-inspired graphics and ad campaigns of the 1960s and 1970s walked so 1980s contemporary graphic design could run.

By the 1980s, artists and advertisers stealthily moved away from flowy fonts and earthy colors. Sharp lines, bold fonts, and neon color blocking better reflected the technological innovations of the time. Futuristic elements, space themes, and celebrity endorsements overtook magazine, newspaper, direct mail, and television advertisements.

Coors Light, a prominent beer company, found prominence by licensing movie characters to create some of the most effective advertising campaigns of the 1980s. One ad featured E.T., the main character of Universal Pictures’ number-one box office movie in 1982. In the ad, E.T. is pictured as a bartender telling the viewer, “If you go beyond your limit, please don’t drive. Phone Home.”

Another campaign that earned Coors Light immense recognition was the Halloween-themed ad set featuring Elvira from the horror movie Elvira, Mistress of the Dark. In one ad, Elvira is stirring a cauldron of Coors Light. The text reads, “My favorite brews!” Elvira was featured in several other campaign ads, resulting in Coors Light becoming known as the beer of Halloween.

Some claim that the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s were the golden age of advertising. Each decade stands out in design trends, advertising methods, and social and political ideals. The most diverse eras of advertising assisted in pushing marketing and advertising boundaries even further throughout the 1990s.

The 1990s to the 2010s

Photo Credit: Lucky Brand (1998). Levis (1995 and 1998). All American Ads 90s (476-477).

At the turn of the decade, the most significant advancement in technology since the invention of the printing press came about. The IBM Personal Computer gave millions of people internet access without leaving home. This invention completely changed the way artists and illustrators worked. Thus altering the way companies utilized advertising art and graphic design moving forward.

By the 1990s, many artists were implementing drawing software and learning to use digital tools for their advertising art. Digital graphic designers had to quickly learn how to utilize the new software for their jobs, ensure all art was print-ready, and spend more time in production. As a result, companies began hiring in-house graphic designers versus outsourcing commissioned artwork from visual artists.

Advertising artwork mirrored the trending grunge, pop, and rave culture of the time. Ads favored dark, pastel, and neon color palettes, with thin sketch-like typography and funky designs. Photoshop was becoming increasingly popular thanks to the popularization of celebrity endorsements.

In 1996, the National Fluid Milk Processor Promotion Board affixed the “Got Milk?” campaign into American culture. The campaign featured celebrities like Ivana Trump, Jennifer Aniston, Whoopi Goldberg, and David Beckham with milk mustaches. The company then published the campaign ads in magazines, newspapers, and online.

At the turn of the century, illustration technology reached new heights. Advertising artists had access to advanced digital production. Video game technology and computer-generated imagery (CGI) seeped into the world of graphic design. This newer technology leveled up all advertising efforts and led to the artwork we see in marketing campaigns currently.

How Vintage Advertising Art Lives on Through Modern Graphic Design

Elements of the 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s remain primary inspirations for graphic designers. Many graphics are a combination of characteristics from each era. Looking closely, one can see the impact advertising art from past decades has had on current designs.

Many companies have launched campaigns reminiscent of design trends from past eras. Budweiser reimagined one of its advertising campaigns from the 1950s and 1960s. The new ad utilizes the advertising art style from the original, but Budweiser updated the message to fit the current social standards.

The Importance of Graphic Design in Marketing Now

When it comes to marketing and advertising, graphic design is the foundation. Businesses, artists, writers, government entities, and public figures need graphic designers to assist them in communicating visually. One can even find graphic design elements in aspects of everyday life.

Posting visual content on social media has become a primary form of communication for businesses. Most marketing firms and agencies recognize this and have built their own graphic design departments to keep up with the demand for visual content. Creative directors and graphic designers now control a brand’s visual identity, which grabs viewers’ attention before any other marketing tactic occurs.

From its conception in the Paleolithic era, visual communication has become an all-encompassing element of marketing and design. Advertising art and graphic design have sparked interest, created visual appeal, and given artists the spotlight in marketing. There is no guessing where graphic design will go from here. Today’s technological advancements, especially in Artificial Intelligence (AI), hold much promise.

Call in an Advertising Art and Graphic Design Agency

Photo Credit: POLA Studio

POLA Marketing’s talented graphic designers are well-versed in the importance of advertising art and graphic design and are highly skilled in combining brand identity with visual identity. POLA can mindfully and artistically create thought-provoking designs for businesses utilizing different logo, color, and typography concepts from throughout the eras. For more information, contact us at (

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