By Joanna Seddon, Managing Partner, Presciant
The ancient Greeks invented many things—from democratic institutions to the alarm clock. Did you know that they also invented the tagline? It was Simonides 2,500 years ago. The first taglines took the form of epigrams—pithy, witty, and utterly memorable rhyming couplets. The number of characters was restricted like Twitter/X.
His most famous commemorated the battle of Thermopylae, at which a small advance guard of the Spartan and Greeks fought valiantly but were slaughtered by the massive Persian army. Here’s what he wrote, speaking for the dead:
Go tell the Spartans, stranger
that here, obedient to their words
These epigrams were outdoor (OOH) advertising. They were not written down, but read out loud, carved into the base of stone pillars, painted on pots, and even, in a chilling foreshadowing of Harley Davidson, tattooed on a slave’s forehead.
Simonides was not a disinterested poet or artist, but a hack for hire, the first poet to demand payment for his services. The composers of epigrams were freelance copywriters, their services available to the highest bidder. Simonides was famous for always asking for more money and is said to have made a fortune. He lived to the age of 89.
His legacy can be seen in modern advertising taglines and jingles. Many use the epigram format. Some appear on billboards. The Burma-Shave campaign which used roadside billboards to advertise shaving cream lasted from 1926 to 1963. It appeared in every state in the US except for Nevada and Massachusetts. Six consecutive signs would be posted along the side of the road, spaced for sequential reading by passing motorists. Typically, the message was a rhyming couplet, just like Simonides. The ads made Burma-Shave the top selling shaving cream. Initially they talked about shaving cream, later added road safety messages. Here are some examples:
“Every shaver / now can snore / six more minutes / than before /
“The wolf / is shaved / so neat and trim / red riding hood / is chasing him /
“The one who drives / when he’s been drinking / depends on you / to do his thinking /
‘Angels who guard you / while you drive / usually / retire at 65 /
Taglines became shorter as cars grew faster, there was no time to read the roadside signs. Advertising pivoted to TV. But the idea of a short, snappy summary persisted and led to such famous taglines as, ‘Think Small’, “Got Milk”, “Just do it”, “Where’s the beef?”, “A diamond is forever.”
Rhyming couplets are still used today. Think of “Nationwide is on your side”.
Never underestimate the Ancient Greeks!