The History of Influencer Marketing

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What does Santa Claus have in common with a Roman gladiator? 

Well, before you let your mind run too wild, how about we just tell you: They have both been a part of successful influencer marketing campaigns. 

Contrary to popular belief, influencer marketing didn’t start around the same time people started posting selfies on social media. It’s actually been around a lot longer—millennia longer, even. 

Here’s a look at the history of influencer marketing: how influencer marketing was born and what lessons modern-day marketers learned from those who came before them.

So when did influencers become a “thing?” 

105 BCE – 404 CE: Ancient Roman billboards

Mosaic at the National Archaeological Museum in Madrid showing a retiarius (net-fighter) named Kalendio fighting a secutor named Astyanax showing the history of influencer marketing

Roman gladiator games began in 105 BCE and remained wildly popular until Emperor Honorius outlawed the events in 404 CE. 

As the most well-attended organized events in ancient Rome, highly anticipated gladiator bouts were often advertised on billboards throughout the city. The ancient ads would have looked similar to modern-day combat sports promotions (albeit with much higher stakes). Popular gladiators often rose to celebrity status, even promoting the occasional product like oil or wine. 

1760: Josiah Wedgwood gets the ultimate celebrity endorsement from Queen Charlotte.

Portrait of Queen Charlotte Gainsborough showing the history of influencer marketing

One of the oldest (and possibly most successful) examples of social proof came from a partnership with English potter Josiah Wedgwood and Queen Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz. As the queen’s favorite craftsmen and one of the most innovative of his time, Wedgwood convinced the royal family to allow him to bill himself as the “Potter to Her Majesty” and even release items depicting the king and queen’s likeness. 

The royal bump catapulted Wedgwood to international success and opened the door to numerous other high-profile customers. Even today, the Wedgwood name lives on with modern branding that still stays true to the spirit and style of the 18th Century craftsman. 

1882: Lillie Langtry recommends Pears’ Soap

Pears' soap ad with Lillie Langtry photo showing the history of influencer marketing
Image via Antipodean

Lillie Langtry was an actress, producer, and the first woman to endorse a commercial product when she appeared in an advertisement for Pears Soap in 1882. 

Thanks to the 19th Century Aesthetics Movement, companies began creating more affordable products formerly only accessible to the ultra-wealthy, and advertisers like Thomas Barratt—known to many as the “father of modern advertising”—needed recognizable women who could promote them. Known for her “ivory complexion,” Langry met the new demand and established an equally lucrative career in advertising as she did as an actress. 

1890: Nancy Green becomes the face of Aunt Jemima.

Aunt Jemima ad with Nancy Green illustration showing the history of influencer marketing
Image via WBEZ Chicago

In 1890, R.T. Davis Milling Company hired Nancy Green as the face of their new pancake mix brand, Aunt Jemima, based on a popular character from a traveling minstrel show.

Green gave the Aunt Jemima brand a unique identity that helped make it into a household name that lasted more than a century. Although Green’s character and dedication to the brand helped market the company to generations of consumers, there is evidence to suggest Green saw little to no revenue for her efforts. 

In 2020, Quaker Oats acknowledged Aunt Jemima as a character rooted in racial stereotypes and announced its plans to remove Aunt Jemima from its packaging and change the name of the pancake mix. However, as the Aunt Jemima image fades away, some groups are still working diligently to preserve Nancy Green’s work as one of the first Black influencers. 

1905: Fatty Arbuckle and Murad Cigarettes

Fatty Arbuckle reading La Vie Parisienne showing the history of influencer marketing

Another well-known instance of a celebrity promotion in the history of influencer marketing is that of Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle and his endorsement of Murad, a Turkish brand of cigarettes.

Legend has it that representatives from the Murad brand tried to convince Arbuckle to actually smoke the cigarettes on stage as part of the deal. But Arbuckle declined, saying he was worried he’d develop a cough or the cigarettes would ruin his voice. He did, however, agree to promote the cigarettes in print.

By this time, people realized that celebrities endorsing products was the next big thing. As such, it was around this time the floodgates opened on the market for celebrity influencers.

1931: Santa promotes Coca-Cola.

Santa Coca-Cola ad in The Saturday Evening Post showing the history of influencer marketing
Image via USA Today

Did Coca-Cola give us the plump, friendly image of Santa? It certainly appears so.

Coke entered the influencer marketing space in 1931 when it introduced Santa Claus as the jolly grandfather figure most imagine today. Before the company’s ad campaign, Santa took many different forms—none of which you would feel good about finding in your chimney. 

It wasn’t enough for Coca-Cola to simply tell people their beverage was delicious. They needed a spokesperson who people trusted—a sentiment that has only become more relevant today as 92% of consumers say they trust recommendations from people they follow on social media rather than advertising directly from brands. 

Coca-Cola’s ad campaign opened the door for brands to use likable figures to generate a halo effect with influencer marketing. Santa was proof that if people love the person promoting the product, they’ll love the product (and brand) too. 

1950: The era of the Marlboro Man

Marlboro ad showing the history of influencer marketing
Image via Advertising Principles

There was hardly anyone cooler in the 1950s than the Marlboro Man. 

Various actors portrayed the cigarette icon to help add to his celebrity status. And not only did The Marlboro man make smoking seem trendy and masculine, but he also helped shape and style a generation of men hoping to achieve a more “rugged” look. 

The Marlboro Man was one of the biggest influencers of that time and endorsed the brand until 1999. Today social media influencers have taken the place of icons like The Marlboro man and help set the tone for what’s hot and not in style and fashion.

2010: The age of the Old Spice Man

It took a while for Old Spice to get into the influencer marketing game. And until it did, many people considered them an “old man” brand. But that all changed when the “The Man Your Man Could Smell Like” campaign completely transformed its image.

The objective was to make the brand fun and relevant for a younger audience. The campaign starring Isaiah Mustafa became hugely successful and set the bar high for other brands to follow.

The original 30-second ad aired a few days before the Super Bowl and the day after the game. Because of its humor and attention-grabbing subject matter, the promotion quickly went viral. 

The result? The sales of Old Spice doubled, and the traffic to its website went up by 300%. Old Spice became the #1 men’s body wash brand, making its collaboration with Mustafa undoubtedly one of the most successful campaigns in the history of influencer marketing.

2010: The rise of influencer marketing on social media

By 2010, social media was making. Facebook was the new kid on the block, and everyone was getting on board. 

Around the same time, Amazon came up with the idea of connecting Facebook with their brand so consumers could see what their friends and family were buying. This tactic proved highly profitable for brands—especially among the younger demographics who say friends and family are their most trusted source for product recommendations. 

Amazon also started suggesting gifts for friends and family based on their interests. People could even see notifications about the upcoming birthdays of their loved ones, along with suggestions for gifts. This sort of product marketing set the tone for how brands would seek social proof from content creators as influencer marketing continued to evolve in the social media environment. 

2015: Reality TV launches a wave of influencers 

Reality TV has been around since Candid Camera hit the scene in the 1940s but didn’t start producing any notable influencers until well into the social media age. 

Premiering in 2009, Jersey Shore was one of the first reality shows to fully take advantage of social media. With Instagram released less than a year later, the show proved that almost anyone could take 15 minutes of fame and turn it into a career online. 

Personalities as massive as Kylie Jenner to as niche as Real Housewife Kyle Richards have proven what leveraging reality stardom with a strong social media presence can do for a personal brand.

2019: FabFitFun collaborates with Khloe Kardashian

Beauty brand FabFitFun is one of many that have taken the lessons learned from influencer marketing history and applied them using modern-day tactics. The brand has teamed up with celebrities like Khloe Kardashian and other massive names to promote its trendy monthly subscription-based beauty boxes on social media. 

FabFitFun leverages the extensive reach of the creators to get their name out to the masses and showcase the array of products users can receive in their monthly boxes. The continued partnership with celebrities and influencers, like Kardashian, has helped the brand reach immense success in recent years and cemented them as pioneers in a subscription box space that continues to grow in popularity. 

Present day: Most brands have adopted influencer marketing

Today, nearly every brand with a social media presence has adopted some form of influencer marketing. The strategy has proven time and time again to be the most effective way for a brand to build trust in its products and services by leveraging the genuine product endorsements of authentic, brand-aligned influencers. 

But over time, influencer marketing has strayed away from exclusively celebrity endorsements, often favoring collaborations with smaller content creators. By partnering with nano and micro influencers, brands can target audiences in hyper-specific niches and capitalize on a smaller but more engaged audience who sees their favorite creator more as a friend than just a TV personality. 

As brands look to stay relevant in the creator economy, they should treat creators as equal partners in their marketing endeavors—not just hired guns used transactionally. Building strong, collaborative relationships with proven influencers help them stay on the cutting edge of a rapidly evolving digital ecosystem and turn their brands into household names. 

Key takeaway: Influencer marketing has been around for centuries and is here to stay. 

We’re not going to sit here and tell you that influencer marketing is stronger than the Roman Empire ever was … even though it has outlived it by about 2,000 years. 

But what we will say is that influencer marketing is not going away any time soon. For brands who haven’t yet jumped on board, now is the perfect time to start taking full advantage of the creator economy and leveraging the social media influencers your audience already knows and trusts. 

Learn more about influencer marketing: Influencer Marketing 101

Updated: November 2023

Frequently Asked Questions

Influencer marketing has a much richer history than many people realize. The earliest evidence of influencer marketing as a strategy dates back to 105 BCE, with Roman gladiators as the first iteration of “the influencer.” Other famous early influencers include Fatty Arbuckle, The Marlboro man, and even Santa Claus. 

Many experts believe influencer marketing started as early as 105 BCE. 

It’s unclear who exactly started influencer marketing. But most experts believe the strategy began when the Roman Empire introduced gladiators to the world in 105 BCE. The most successful gladiators were often considered celebrities and occasionally endorsed products, including wine and oils. 

Although influencer marketing has technically been around for millennia, the term “influencer” didn’t become popular until social media rose to prominence in the early 2010s. English dictionaries officially included the term in 2019. 

There is no clear “first” influencer on social media. However, many consider fashion designer Coco Chanel the first influencer closest to how we think of them today. 

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Written by Quinn Schwartz

Quinn studied journalism at the University of Kentucky and now lives in Portland, Oregon. He’s particularly interested in storytelling in digital marketing and cost-effective creator strategies for smaller brands. When he’s not writing, you can find him at a concert, dog park, or debating whether or not to go on a run.

© Grin Technologies Inc. 2024. All rights reserved.

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