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Ancient Egyptians were the kings of advertising, and the world is still adopting their techniques.

Encer, the design division of The Oyemaja Group

Oyemaja Executives, a division of The Oyemaja Group.

Business, Advertising, Marketing, Entrepreneurship.
Oyemaja, Egypt. Photocredit: Unsplash

Ancient Egyptians had hacked the principles of advertising way before the world really understood the concept. Here’s the story.

3000BC in Thebes, Egypt, a man called Hapu owned and operated a successful fabric factory with workers and slaves working for the business. One of the slaves, a man named Shem, went missing. Boss Hapu contracted a scribe to create a form of poster to alert the public of his missing slave. The advertisement was made on papyrus, a material made from the pith of the papyrus plant - Cyperus papyrus. It read:

“The man-slave, Shem, having run away from his good master, Hapu the Weaver, all good citizens of Thebes are enjoined to help return him.
He is a Hittite, short, of ruddy complexion and brown eyes. For news of his whereabouts, half a gold coin is offered. And for his return to the shop of Hapu the Weaver, where the best cloth is woven to your desires, a whole gold coin is offered.”

That advertisement is now referred to as the “The Shem of Papyrus” and is on public display in the British Museum.


Why is the Shem ad so unique? This is because the principles of advertising applied by Hapu thousands of years ago in Ancient Egypt are still in use till today – proof of a highly enlightened population existing years ago.

This isn’t strange. Ancient Egypt is regarded as one of the oldest and most advanced civilizations in the world. They were notable for the most astounding innovations such as their advanced writing system called Hieroglyphics, the canal and dikes system of crop irrigation, their impressive structures including the Egyptian pyramids, temples and tombs, and lots more.

What are these advertising principles? Grasp their attention; show your audience an advantage; persuade them to take the advantage and demand for an action. Every ad copy must reflect these principles to be effective. Rosser Reeves explains it better. To him, a great ad must make a proposition to the customer; it must be one in which the competition cannot offer; and it must be strong enough to move the masses.

Judge a book by its cover

Structurally, an effective advertisement copy opens with an attention-grabbing heading. Yes, customers judge a book by the cover. In a fast-paced world, you have a maximum of 3 seconds to convince a prospect to read the entire ad after glancing at your heading. Lose them at this point and they’d scroll by.

Whether Hapu came up with the copy himself or the scribe did, the brilliance is apparent. Give it up for Egyptians. What is Hapu’s heading? “The man-slave, Shem, having run away from his good master, Hapu the Weaver, all good citizens of Thebes are enjoined to help return him.”

It’s simple and straight to the point. It grabs your attention just from the first 5-6 words. “The man-slave shem having run away…”. That already sparks your interest. Imagine he started with “Hello there, I am Hapu, founder of Hapu International Fabrics, makers of the best fabrics in the entire Egypt. I employed a man called Shem…”. See that? You’ve lost interest already. But that’s exactly what a lot of people do. They begin to read out their CVs in an ad, boasting about how their company is on Forbes list. But customers don’t care if you claim to the best. Everybody else is claiming to be the best. You need to stand out by grabbing their attention with a powerful story. “My slave ran away!” They will stop to learn what happened. Why did he flee? Did you maltreat him? That’s how you grab some attention.

Business, Advertising, Marketing, Entrepreneurship.
Oyemaja, Egypt; Photocredit: Unsplash

Let's talk about offers

The next thing you need to do is to make them an offer they cannot resist. What’s on the table? How juicy is your proposition? Also, when you give people options, the more they trust you. You appeal to a wider range of customers by giving people the opportunity to choose the option that best fits their budget. Offering different price points increases the perceived value associated with each option; a higher price for a more valuable service or product; a lower price for less value. Watch your sales triple.

Did the Egyptian, Hapu exemplify this with his papyrus ad? Definitely. He was able to create two different offers with two reward packages, one higher and one lower - “For news of his whereabouts, half a gold coin is offered. And for his return to the shop of Hapu the Weaver, where the best cloth is woven to your desires, a whole gold coin is offered”. With that, customers pick a struggle.

Don’t leave out a clear Call-To-Action. That's a sacred advertising principle. Every advertisement copy must encourage customers to take action. Do you want them to order for your product? Pay for a service? Spell it out. Hapu knew this, and he wrote it expressly, “give me news of his whereabouts” or “bring him to my doorstep”.

And more

There are, of course, other elements to be inserted into an ad, such as using images or sketches of the product or service; but my guess is that there were no skilled artists in Egypt to depict what Shem looked like at the time. Or maybe there were, but it didn't cross Hapu's mind. That would have made it easier to locate the slave, and is perhaps the reason Shem the slave was never found.

Testimonials in advertisements have been proven to boost confidence in customers and create conversion. Had Hapu lost slaves in the past and had successfully rewarded his finders, that could have been inserted into his copy.

Save for these extra omissions, Hapu’s copy depicts sound understanding of the principles of advertising which remain relevant till date. Creating a copy? Be like the ancient Egyptians. Be like Hapu.

Your business is our business,

Oyemaja Executives.



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