Advertising has, since the establishment of a trade-based economy, been one of the most crucial factors of commerce. Even if it was something as primitive as shouting out what you’re selling from a market stall at the local fair, it’s always been essential that you let your customers know what you have to offer and why they should buy it.
As consumerism started to take off in the 17th century, more sophisticated means of advertising were necessary to get goods off the shelves. Eventually, this led to the development of the human billboard.
Writings on the Wall
Before the advent of the human billboard, advertising was a lot messier. Even as far back as Ancient Egypt and Greece, papyrus scrolls have been found advertising various products being sold in ancient cities.Pompeii, likewise, is resplendent in hundreds of commercial and political messages in public spaces.
Meanwhile, in the Chinese Song dynasty, many printed advertisements for products have been found, including one for an Ancient Chinese needle shop!
With the development of the printing press, along with cheaper means of producing paper, it quickly became possible for small businesses to advertise themselves in public spaces.
Up until about the 19th century, posters made up the majority of on-street advertising. Businesses could also hire out advertising space in locally printed newspapers as well, a practice that started nearly a century earlier.
Unfortunately, paper-based advertising was very messy, and frequently left lots of rubbish littering the streets as flyers and posters were blown out of hands and off of walls. It became such a common practice that there was often very bitter fighting over prominent wall space on which posters could be affixed.
This frequently led to people deliberately removing or covering up the adverts of the competition, and eventually the problem grew so bad that many governments passed taxes on the use of public wall space. Gradually, alternative means of commercialization were sought by shop owners.
At the same time, a massive migration of people from the country into the cities saw many standing around doing nothing and in need of quick change in the pocket…
Enter The Human Billboard
It’s not certain who the first human billboard was, nor who or what they advertised. What is known is that, from as early as the 1820s, it was reported that gentlemen were being seen with various signs and adverts affixed to their hats.
These became a common sight in London, and the practice quickly spread across the developed world. Today many would refer to these types of signs as “sandwich boards” because the human is sandwiched between two sign boards.
When the London government banned the use of posters on private property, the use of the human billboard, otherwise known as the “bipedal advertisement”, quickly skyrocketed as the most popular means of advertisement.
Over time, new and more extravagant or even outrageous uses of human billboards became commonplace. Costumes with fancier signage, even impromptu parades were not uncommon before long.
Human Billboards Today
In high traffic areas, human billboards or “sign twirlers” are still common even today. Go to any busy city and you’ll probably spot half a dozen, as they’re cheap, easy to use, and highly effective.
They’re especially popular for seasonal events, such as Halloween, as they’re a fun yet effective way to draw in additional crowds from off the street.
However with the rise of private traffic, many governments and officials have criticised the practice for being potentially dangerous for drivers, so their use is more regulated and controlled than it was in the 1800s.
It’s also common todays for human billboards to be a little more discrete than their ancestors back in Victorian London.
With printing t-shirts being similarly inexpensive, many companies prefer to use t-shirts emblazoned with their logo.
These are frequently worn by sign waivers or street marketers to raise commercial awareness without being quite as obtuse as a human billboard might be.
Regardless of the method, this kind of advertising has been effective since the advent of marketing and continues to be successful today.
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