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Gutenberg and Advertising: A Copy and Paste of History?
By: Mark Sanderson
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With all the discussion during the past several years about how the Internet is changing the face of everything — from the way we buy our groceries to the way our brains are wired — perhaps a look back through history at what one author suggests is a related event could provide perspective on what is happening and the impact it is having on advertising.

John Man, in his book Gutenberg: How One Man Remade the World with Words, tells the story of the invention of movable type by Johann Gutenberg, an obscure 15th century German artisan,  and the tremendous impact it had on society –- ultimately paving the way for our modern world.

On the first page of his book, Man explains that there have been four “turning-points” in the history of written communication, when it “flicked to a new level of speed and outreach.” These turning-points are:

  1. The invention of writing itself
  2. The invention of the alphabet.
  3. The invention of printing with movable type.
  4. The coming of the Internet.

While each of these turning-points had (is having) its own unique impact on the world, looking at the general effects of one can give us insight into the general effects of another. Hence, looking at the impact of the invention of moveable type can give us some idea of what to expect from the coming of the Internet. The following is a list, based on Man’s book, of the impact of Gutenberg’s invention.

  • Initially, “what sold fast was good old-fashioned dross: astrology, alchemy and esoteric lore.”
  • Renaissance art and scholarship was “catapulted. . .across the face of Europe” — a classical revival served as the “foundation for further progress” in architecture, map-making, biology, etc.
  • Development of new forms of writing — the essay and the novel.
  • Advances in astronomical study that led to Copernicus discovering that our solar system is sun-centered and not earth-centered.
  • The discovery of America by Columbus.
  • Indexing — the categorization of knowledge for easy reference.
  • The growth of Democracy through government transparency and accountability.
  • The Reformation — started by Martin Luther as an attempt to correct errors that had crept into the Church, but which ended up dividing Christendom.

Each item on this list is, to some extent, happening again as a result of the coming of the Internet. “Dross” is more readily available, scholarship in all fields is advancing, search engines index the entire world wide web, and transparency is apparent on all fronts — government, corporate, and individual.

Generally, what each of these turning-points brought about is an increase in individual empowerment. Writing empowered the elites who had time to master the craft; the alphabet empowered ordinary people by simplifying the craft; moveable type empowered more people to publish their thoughts to a wider audience; and the Internet is empowering anyone with the courage to launch into cyber space.

This trend toward empowerment provides perspective on the changes we have seen in advertising over the past decade. Greater consumer empowerment has led to an increase in consumer-generated content, a stronger relationship with brands and their advertising, and the consumer becoming the medium via social media. At the same time, while greater transparency has knocked businesses back on their heels as they experience greater public scrutiny, some businesses have adapted by empowering their employees to respond to issues in real-time — realizing that good customer service is good marketing. Additionally, empowered by the Internet, more people are developing a do-it-yourself approach and are creating ads of their own.

With the invention of moveable type as our imperfect historical guide, the days ahead will likely bring a further democratization of everything — from increased product personalization to a splintering marketplace to advertising practices — but at a faster pace, since that is the nature of the Internet.



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About the Author
Mark Sanderson has a Master's Degree in Advertising from The University of Texas at Austin and lives in Brooklyn, NY with his wife, Emily. Visit him online here
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