History repeats itself: the ancient world of influencer marketing

Main image, woman in toga holding ancient roman vase with gladiator on it.
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Influencer [in-floo-uhn-ser]

Noun:

  1. a person or thing that influences
  2. a person who has the power to influence many people, as through social media or traditional media

People say Aristotle was a lot of things. A student, a philanthropist, a philosopher. But even the most devout of followers often forget his greatest power: influence. To this day, institutions follow the Aristotelian method and scientists employ his logical principles. You might say Socrates was the granddaddy of philosophy, but the dude hardly wrote anything down! It’s hard to continue your influence over generations without a text to reference. Thank Zeus for Plato.

Social media accounts didn’t exist at the time, but Aristotle is still the original master of getting people to follow him—even if they didn’t know it yet. After his death, roman fanboys like Cicero and Marcus Aurelius simped hard over his logic and reasoning. They created texts and scriptures that saw the Aristotelian theory implemented across the entirety of the western world. 

We see the world influencer, and we think of selfies, Instagram stories, and product reviews. But consider that there were times in history Roman gladiators endorsed products. Over history, Kings and Queens provide royal seals, and entrepreneurs find intelligent ways to market their products. Fictional characters are constructed and assembled by brands to steal the hearts of millions. Influencers arose far before the dawn of the internet. It's arguably ancient.

Even the Pope seems to agree with me. 


Roman gladiators endorsing products 

Think back thousands of years. Imagine yourself as a young wine-maker in Rome. Your wine is among the best, but you struggle to overcome other competitors in the space. You risk falling out of business if you can’t reach your potential customers.

But what if you got one of the gladiators to endorse your product? Surely if the citizens of Rome saw a champion enjoying the fruits of your labour, they would too. The Colosseum was the mecca of entertainment in Ancient Rome, exposing gladiators to thousands of people at once. This is why historians have long suggested that Roman Gladiators were arguably the first influencers of purchasing behaviors.

Even Gladiator (2000) was supposed to have a nod to Roman influencer marketing. The original script included a scene featuring a gladiator endorsing a brand of olive oil. In the end, the directors decided to cut the scene from the movie. They were worried that a billboard in Ancient Rome was “hard to believe.”

Gladiator billboard in Ancient Rome


Images like the one above are giant billboards that would be placed around the city. These pieces of art would depict fights between famous gladiators and help boost the hype around main-events. The artwork has been recorded saying, “Twenty pairs of gladiators provided by Quintus Monnius Rufus are to fight at Nola May First.”

These men held celebrity status amongst the people of Rome. A status that historians claim was used to help sell products like olive oil and wine. After all, it makes a big difference if Marcus Aurelius Quintavius Bacciamus is seen using your olive oil to treat his skin. The graffiti on the walls from citizens of Rome were like sponsored ads for products.

Wedgwood makes tea set for the wife of King George III


YouTuber’s love to make custom artwork for celebrities and influencers. Shoes, custom car wraps, you name it. But these influencer collaborations have got nothing on an English entrepreneur and the mastermind behind the world’s first influencer collaboration. This guy didn’t go after a celebrity; he went after the Queen. 

The first widely acknowledged influencer collab was recorded in 1765. Josiah Wedgwood, a British entrepreneur, produced a tea set for Queen Charlotte. King George III and his wife were so pleased with the gift that they appointed him “Potter to her Majesty.”

After the royal endorsement, Wedgwood’s products became known as “Queensware.” The entrepreneur flexed his advertising chops in London newspapers. The era saw rising income levels, and he marketed his aristocratic products by naming them after members of the nobility.

In 2021, the name Wedgwood still represents fine china. Through the perceived superiority of their products, they have been able to avoid discounting. Wedgewood products typically sell at higher prices than competitors. In many ways, people aren’t just paying for China, but they are buying a royal brand’s credibility.

Queen Elizabeth II and the royal warrant

As we’ve learned, Queens are notorious for acting as influencers of purchasing decisions. Sure, the Queen might not be doing the Blinding Lights TikTok Challenge, but the Queen's crest is recognized as a true example of genuine advocacy for a product.

In the 15th century, the Queen of England provided “Royal Warrant of Appointments.” These seals were given to companies that supplied goods or services to the households of the Royal family. It was a simple way of telling people that these products are good enough to be used in a royal household.

Contemplating it, it’s quite a genius way to get a bunch of companies to send you free stuff. I can imagine the Queen’s guest suite filled with tapenades, ketchup, and gin. She would think to herself, “Yes. Quite. Gordon’s is good, but what about that Beefeater.”  

Today, there are around 800 Royal Warrant holders across a range of trades and industries. Some research suggests that certain organizations earn up to 5% of their revenue due to the Royal Warrant. Other brands, like After Eight, have chosen to remove the brand from their packaging altogether. For some, the seal evokes dignity and quality. But for others, it only symbolizes class inequality and the power of the Elite.

Fictional characters become influencers 

Oh, Jolly Saint Nick. How can one figure be both the catalyst of children’s dreams and diabetes around the planet? Well, only a partnership with the world’s largest soda brand could concoct such a powerful marketing message. In 1932, Coca-Cola’s picturization of Santa Clause drove beverage sales even at the tipping-point of the great depression.

It was a dark time for America. But the advertisements were a beacon for their target audience. Coca-Cola used jubilant and jolly images of St. Nicholas to evoke images of a more cheerful time. This helped consumers reflect on happier feelings about the company.
With the growth of mass-media, fictional characters saw increased use in advertisements up to the 1970s. “Little Mikey” hit the screen during this time in a famous Life cereal commercial. Mikey is a fictional, picky boy who is portrayed as someone who enjoys eating Quaker Oats. Advertisers wanted their audience to think: “if Mikey likes it, I’ll like it.”

And it worked. The ad won the Clio award in 1974. An accomplishment that recognizes innovation and creative excellence in advertising, design, and communication. It was so successful that it was aired for 12 years consecutively and is one of the longest continuously running campaigns ever. 

Why does this matter? 

Religion is one of the hardest things to write about without insulting people. And if you feel some kind of way right now, I would like to take this chance to apologize—*Cue Connor McGregor*—to absolutely Nobody! Can you blame me for finding the role of religion in the early days of marketing interesting? Just thank me for raising a topic that has played such a formative role in shaping our history as humans. You’re welcome.

The funny thing about history is that it tends to repeat itself. Word of mouth recommendation is a fundamental part of the human condition. A characteristic that we’ve had since the dawn of time. I picture bi-pedal apes teaching each other that bone-marrow is tasty—or Ancient Greeks endorsing one type of olive over the other.

It works because it taps into a psychological need: collaboration and social behavior. It also evokes a need for trust and reliability from both parties. Humans want to be able to rely on each other and be part of a community. We want to believe in something. These are qualities I don’t see evaporating from the human race any time soon.

There have been rumblings that influencer marketing is a fad or passing trend. The argument can be made that mass media has been a catalyst for growth. But I think it’s naive to assume something we’ve been doing for thousands of years will simply vanish. 

From gladiators to entrepreneurs and Queens, History teaches us that influencer marketing existed before the dawn of mass media. Before the waves of so-called growth experts and Snapchat gurus.

It existed far before Charli D’amelio, and it will exist long after her.