From papyrus to clay tablets to the Gutenberg printing press to seed catalogs to persuasive conversations at taverns and street corners to the internet’s first Email in 1971, marketing vehicles have existed with the imperative to communicate something of value for an audience and to use human to human trust and storytelling in order to sell that product of value.

With the exception of one lengthy academic work on Spam, there is no unified scholarship on this area of contemporary history: the common thread which pervades human to human communication in direct marketing. There is, however, a plethora of inaccurate information about early spam and spammers dispersed across multiple sources, published both online and in print—many of those inaccuracies perpetrated by the spammers themselves. This thesis does its best to rectify both of the aforementioned concerns, drawing upon a compilation of personally conducted interviews, print sources, and webpages devoted to the curation of the history of the early internet.

 There was not one “aha” moment when direct marketing was born; no moment when an industry was formed out of chaos. The concept of distributing novel products, monetary reward, or even persuasive political jargon that moved the tide of revolutions in history evolved as direct marketing alongside the development of civilization.

 Whereas the channels for direct marketing have clearly changed through the years, and evolution of innovation can bring abuses (like spam), the purpose of direct marketing—communication of value, engaged through a human to human process[1]—remains the same. No matter how consumers use technology in the future, marketers will be aligning their communication efforts with that behavior. In the pursuit of sharing products that can change a life or simply make one easier, direct marketing had already spent upwards of $153.3 billion by 2010… which accounted for 54.2% of all ad expenditures in the United States…these advertising expenditures generated approximately $1.798 trillion in incremental sales.”[2] According to Michael Brenner, direct content marketing will generate $300 billion by 2019.[3]  Direct marketing is about human to human communication; it began that way—personal, interactive, and value-oriented. Understanding the evolution of the benefits and tactics involved in direct marketing as well as its growing pains crystallizes the impact such outreach has had on civilization and provides a lens through which to understand the future of marketing-consumer behavior.

We cannot view direct marketing and spam in a vacuum. It is not that some advertiser came up with direct mail spam when the internet exploded. The kernels, psychology, and understanding of a need to communicate in order to sell one’s products existed long before networked computers. It was, however, the advent of cross-network computing that enabled what we now call spam, and which has been leveraged by modern marketers to deliver their sales messages directly to people who want to receive them. This survey seeks to demonstrate the evolution of digital sales techniques, starting with their humble analog origins, and ending with the demise of “big spam” in the early 2000s.

The more things change the more they stay the same, and one need only visit the British Museum to note how this concept applies to direct mail marketing: there, on a papyrus dating back to 1,000 BCE, a landowner advertised a hefty gold reward for the return of his escaped slave. Although the address of origin is foggy, the papyrus turned up in Thebes, Egypt before being placed behind glass in London.

There is no record as to whether this landowner was actually successful in his marketing endeavor, making the endeavor inherently different from most direct marketing attempts that we know of today because those who market directly are usually able to quantify the response to their offer. However, the concept of direct marketing via papyrus is not so different from modern marketing tactics.

The merchants of Babylonia were no strangers to direct marketing either according to the stories their brick and stone tablets tell. Apparently, merchants inscribed a list of their products on tablets and hand-delivered them to the interested people of each town through which they passed—not as tidy or labor-savvy as clicking SEND, but inventive, nonetheless, and, without question, direct marketing. It is also recorded in A History of Advertising that during the first century C.E., poets “disperse[d] prospectuses”[4] in an effort to glean clients. As writing was considered a scholarly endeavor, such direct marketing pieces were seriously regarded. Although today the printed word arriving in one’s Email box or at one’s doorstep is a common occurrence, the perceived value of direct mail is still a powerful motivator to action.

With the appearance of the Gutenberg printing press in 1440, direct marketing emerged in Europe. By 1480, a printer by the name of William Caxton established the first printing press in England at Westminster Abbey, and proceeded to engage in the production of hand-bills or advertising leaflets. Direct marketing was off and running. Merchants routinely utilized flyers to hand out or post on walls—an effective advertisement for both their wares and their guilds. The symbols of the merchants’ guilds were always in plain sight on the advertisements so as to credentialize the merchant.

[1] Here, value means the ultimate effect of the advertised product, and “human to human” refers to a marketing philosophy which treats potential customers like new contacts. In a human to human process, advertisers create customer journeys meant to build trust and cultivate genuine relationships between brand and consumer.

[2] The Power of Direct Marketing: ROI, Sales, Expenditures, and Employment in the US (New York, NY: Direct Marketing Association, Inc., 2009).

[3] Michael Brenner and Liz Bedor, The content formula: calculate the ROI of content marketing & never waste money again (West Chester, PA: Marketing Insider Group, 2015).

[4] Stéphane Pincas and Marc Loiseau, A history of advertising (Köln: Taschen, 2008).