History of advertising: No. 142: The Pompeii penis

Amid Pompeii's ruins is a curbstone into which has been carved a penis proudly pointing the way to what was once one of the city's most popular brothels.

History of advertising: No. 142: The Pompeii penis

Guides like to tell tittering tourists that they are looking at "the oldest advertisement in the world for the world’s oldest profession".

It’s a neat description but, while few people would contest the latter claim, the former doesn’t bear close scrutiny.

To trace advertising’s origins, it’s necessary to go back far beyond 24 August 79 AD, when Pompeii was buried under a layer of volcanic ash after the eruption of Mount Vesuvius.

The problem is in knowing where to begin. Historians writing about the origins of advertising find it hard to agree. One talks of the signs and public announcements in ancient Athens. Another takes as his starting point a 3,000-year-old printed ad from Thebes created by a trader wanting his slave back.

It reads: "For his return to the shop of Hapu the weaver, where the best cloth is woven for your desires, a whole gold coin is offered."

The fact is that people have tried influencing others for all human existence, using whatever means and media was available to them at the time. Advertising relics have been unearthed in ancient Arabia, China, Greece, Rome and Egypt, where papyrus was used to create posters and flyers around 2000 BC.

However, it is in Pompeii, a thriving place full of shops and bars at the time of its destruction, that advertising of the kind we would recognise began to emerge.

Indeed, an ad featuring a picture of a phoenix to promote a bar seems quite contemporary. It declared: "The phoenix is happy and so can you be. This bar is owned by Euxinus, ‘Mr Hospitality’."

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