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A BRAIN FOR THE GAME: HOW P.T.

BARNUM REVOLUTIONIZED ADVERTISING

Matthew Hallock
May, 2000

1.

Phineas T. Barnum has a sullied reputation today. He’s perhaps
best known for his circus, now called Ringling Brothers and Barnum &
Bailey, which he actually began when he was in his 60s. Historically, the
circus conjures up images of fast talkers with loose morals, of social outcasts who have found a home in the community of the travelling show.
There are the barkers who overpromise, the fortune-tellers and games of
chance where the only sure bet is that you’ll lose your money.
In this vein, Barnum is remembered as a huckster, a snake oil salesman, a symbol of hype. (Phineas means “mouth of brass” in Hebrew.)
Instead, he should be remembered as an incredibly successful — and
1 And when bad
honest — businessperson. He was a self-made millionaire.

investments and duplicity wiped him out, he remade his fortune.
Barnum began giving the lecture “The Art of Money-Getting” in
2 The lecture
1858 when he was in England recovering from bankruptcy.

centered around his credo for healthy living, such as avoid debt, focus
on your work, read newspapers, and, perhaps above all else, advertise
constantly and heavily.3
This paper focuses on the last point. Advertising was Barnum’s cornerstone to building a successful business. He wrote in his book

He said that every dollar spent in advertising came back ten times. He was so wellrespected that in his day any marketing innovation was called a Barnumism. hence public attention is attracted. either. new customers come to you. which can be defined as unpaid promotions through the press and word of mouth. Humbugs of the World: Advertising is to a genuine article what manure is to land — it largely increases the product. He demonstrated an intuitive sense of what works. tested and refined many of the techniques that form the basis of modern advertising. or sleeping. and continued to innovate and experiment throughout his long career. Barnum’s techniques were incredibly sophisticated and grounded in solid marketing principles. or attending to your business. and. He also recognized the strength of publicity. It’s almost inconceivable that one person could be so ahead of his time. Many of them seem commonplace .4 Barnum understood the value of advertising better than anyone before. He didn’t just pour money into advertising. Barnum conceived. Thousands of persons may be reading your advertisement while you are eating. if you render them a satisfactory equivalent for their money. they continue to patronize you and recommend you to their friends.2.

other advertisers. Barnum th century advertisers. For example. Barnum was experimenting with the content of his ads to generate higher response.” He would use phrases like “At last. including Thomas Edison promoting his phono- . In addition. subhead and short sentences to break up the copy. while Barnum was writing to leading figures asking for their testimonials. To promote the 160 yearold Joice Heth. “The circus will be at 7 PM. but they weren’t in the 19 the 1870s department store magnate John Wanamaker of Philadelphia became the first store owner to take out a full-page newspaper ad and to hire a full-time copy chief. in and obvious now. At the same time. He had many rules and achievements. While they were was light years ahead of other 19 satisfied to just print their name and products or services offered. including: • Write in the active tense.3.” He also experimented with boldfaces. the ad said she was “The Greatest Natural and National Curiosity in the World. not the passive. Incidentally. Barnum was employing entire teams of advertisers to promote his circuses. bullets. “See the circus at 7 PM!” vs.” • Use celebrity endorsements to add credibility. th century. • He created news value in his headlines.

Note in the ad at the right how Barnum said the Fejee Mermaid would be here for one week more.4. In reality. The American Museum His first great success was the American Museum in lower .000 and three months making The hippo roars. Own the media any way you can. • Use dramatic visuals. it would be exhibited as long as there was a paying crowd. graph. • Media placement. were running unauthorized celebrity endorsements. not just a hippo standing there. Barnum wanted the top 1/3 of a page. In 1879. • Give a deadline. • Offer guarantees. his printers spent $3. given Barnum’s slick reputation. It’s ironic that others were the duplicitous ones. And who could pass up 200 educated white rats? a poster that covered the entire side of a building. Barnum showed a roaring hippo.

craftsmen would have to carve several blocks of boxwood and then bolt them together for printing. most ad visuals were woodcuts. Manhattan. However. boxwood is a small tree. The preferred carving wood was boxwood because its dense grain and strength would endure the repetitive impressions from the printing process. A craftsman would carve a likeness into a block of wood. Through innovative advertising. In his era. He also demonstrated the fascination people have for a singular individual — the achiever. The poster was plastered throughout New York City and immediately created a buzz for the American Museum.5. When Barnum bought the institution (then called the Scudder Museum) in 1840. which was then inked to create a relief image for reproduction. he made the museum a success and showed other businesses the power of it. he immediately ordered larger billboards and handbills than had ever been seen before. To make an image. The result was a 2’ x 3’ woodcut just of Barnum’s head. the trunk usually growing about six inches in diameter at maturity. . One of Barnum’s first instructions to the printer was to make a woodcut portrait of him four times larger than anything previously done.

This was an enormously expensive gamble. best work they had ever done. He immediately pushed the printers to do the biggest.000 displays. It became a must see. lights and music. . Revenue tripled the first year. It’s hard to overstate the Barnum’s vision here and the impact he had on advertising.6. He also used posters. from $11. He was a store clerk with a wife and children who had spent the last five years investing in one failed venture or con after another. with steady increases every year after that.000. then gave people their money’s worth. Even though he was poor and just starting out. “Perhaps for 5 floors jam-packed with 850. So Barnum’s belief in the power of advertising really paid off. And why not? It was a bargain — only 25¢ 5 He claimed. he wasn’t content to just secure ownership of the museum and try to build it slowly. including a grease that was supposed to grow hair. He had put up what little money he had and borrowed heavily for the rest to purchase the money-losing Scudder Museum. The museum’s fortunes improved immediately.000 to over $30. Consider his situation and courage.

When it was destroyed.” 6 Barnum not only made his museum a success.7. then the animals and “freaks” from his collection began appearing in the ads. and carefully saved from the ravages of time and the gnawing tooth of decay the garments and utensils of men of note long since moldered. The proliferation of outdoor advertising continued unabated. to where by the 1890s entire buildings in New York. Circuses and others began hiring woodcutters to promote their shows. his advertising techniques helped change outdoor advertising. . down. The American population was only 35 million. London and Paris were covered from street level to the roof with dozens of billboards. and revealed to us the mysteries of the past. Many people came time and again. His “huge head” posters were soon colorized. This realism movement caught on.The New York Timescalled it “a landmark of the city. has preserved intact relics of days and ages long since gone. has afforded us in childhood fullest vision of the wonderful and miraculous. Clothing stores began putting up billboards on the roads outside of town. has opened to us the secrets of the earth. Theatres began showing actors in their roles instead of real-life portraits.

from dwarfs to giants to albinos. the year it burned .” That was the truth. “It is of no advantage to advertise unless you intend to honestly fulfill the promises made in this manner. tigers. insects. reptiles. human oddities. a rifle and pistol gallery and a bowling alley. He said. a hall of wax figures. Barnum believed in providing a quality product.8. he believed just the opposite. a taxidermist to stuff and mount recently deceased pets. 38 million people visited the museum in 1865. fortune tellers.” Among the sights in the American Museum were a phrenologist examining customers’ heads for personality profiles.” In fact. and it was one of the first stages for Tom Thumb. there never was before in the world such an instance of extraordinary success as this museum presents. Barnum held quality plays and lectures at the American Museum (especially after he matured and was embarrassed by his “huckster” reputation). educational entertainment. natural wonders. There’s no evidence he ever said. tropical fish and live whales. and a Lecture Room that was really a theatre. “There’s a sucker born every minute. dioramas. Theatres in the 1800s had a bad reputation as a locale for hookers and thugs.

love you or hate you. Cher. Donald Trump. The Person As The Product Barnum was one of the first businessmen to realize the value of name recognition. Then. Madonna — these people used or use the same fascination. Frank Lloyd Wright. These celebrities have broken through the clutter with continual self-promotion. He had his name plastered all over the place. He became one of the most-recognized faces in America for over 50 years. An icon. a hero.7 . people will know you. The American Museum posters featuring his head established Barnum as a brand.9. Barnum found that people were as interested in seeing him as his exhibits. Barnum became so associated with museums that people thought a museum in any city must be his. The novelty and size of the American Museum posters helped Barnum gain recognition throughout New York and soon the country. They transcend their profession and become personalities. toward the end of his European tours with Tom Thumb. The American consumer loves an individual: somebody who has the guts and panache to represent a movement or age. In 1847. They’ve realized that it’s not enough to have talent.

It’s more like a leaky bucket. Newspaper and magazine coverage is free advertising that carries more weight because it has news credibility without the stigma of a paid message. He knew that circulation was the key.000 for the right to say the first words after the transatlantic cable was laid. He offered $5. “I am indebted to the press … for almost every dollar . His active mind was constantly searching for the next stunt or event to keep himself and his ventures in the public consciousness. the flamboyant founder of Virgin Atlantic.10. Held the first beauty pageant. Barnum announced that anyone could publish his 8 autobiography without paying him or even asking him for permission. too. Barnum knew it. He said. The Press The flip side of self-promotion is the power of the press. He was a forerunner of Richard Branson. In the 1880s. Barnum did things like sponsor a balloon attempt across the Atlantic. He continually advertised himself to attract new audiences to replace those who had seen his shows. But Barnum understood that self-promotion isn’t self-perpetuating.

publisher of Rolling Stone magazine. His exploitation of the press was so pervasive that it helped create the division between editorial and advertising departments that exists today. which I possess …. he arranged for a week-long lecture series concerning the mermaid. This all worked to arouse the public’s appetite.11. The very great popularity which I have attained both at home and abroad I ascribe almost entirely to the liberal and persistent 9 use of the public journals of this country. each thinking they were getting an “exclusive. He simultaneously made woodcuts of a mermaid and distributed them to the newspapers. Barnum often leveraged his status as a heavy advertiser to gain full newspaper coverage.” Gate receipts tripled. To promote the Fejee Mermaid. Barnum permitted the reporters to have a close examination of it. Barnum had friends from southern cities send newspaper editors mentioning that a British naturalist had a remarkable mermaid with him.” Finally. Jan Wenner. When it came to New York. which convinced many of its authenticity. is a modern figure who has profited with . It still happens occasionally. He advertised that it was now on display at the American Museum “without extra charge.

They’re copying Barnum. She performed for royalty and packed houses throughout the continent. Barnum. Without ever seeing her or hearing her sing. Jenny Lind was a young soprano who was the rage of Europe. the Swedish Nightingale. Forbes magazine may be about to run an article saying how XYZ Corporation is a big polluter. had this type of clout with publications.12. with the demand that the record labels place ads in his magazine. as a big advertiser. but they’ll get a phone call from XYZ threatening to pull all the advertising for the year if the article runs. For many years. Wenner has written high-profile articles on recording artists. Barnum in 1850 paid . The Fejee Mermaid described above is one example. one of movie studios’ favorite techniques is the “teaser” — creating excitement for an upcoming release through advertising and promotion. For example. The Teaser Today. Another is the excitement Barnum built for the singer Jenny Lind. Barnum’s strategy of using ads to gain news coverage. This tension between advertising and editorial is played out on a daily basis.

Like Cicero the orator said. Barnum held a contest to write an “Ode to America” for Lind to . this news carried greater weight than her singing voice. Know Your Audience. Barnum emphasized the parts of the Lind Jenny Lind arrives in America story that most appealed to people. a train conductor’s innocent question made him realize that nobody in America knew who she was. Barnum created the greatest advance advertising campaign America had ever seen. He painted the picture of an angel. For six months. $200.13.000 in advance to manage an American tour for her. he flooded the newspapers with stories of her benevolence to the poor and the fact that she was donating great parts of her concert proceeds to charity. In the spirit of religious revivalism of the times. Only a few hours later. Undaunted.

. though.14. He had a hotel proprietor pay $1. It was all the product of Barnum’s teaser campaign. and persuaded his friend Genin the Hatter to bid the most for them.000 people to see her off. So there was a fraction of the crowd to say goodbye after she was famous in America then when she was arriving as an unknown — further proof of Barnum’s marketing prowess. but it gave the haberdasher national fame and helped increase his business many fold. When she left to return to Europe. He even held an auction for opening-night tickets.000 for the “rights” to house her. Few. Another example is Barnum’s huge circus advance team. Lind didn’t disappoint. playing to packed houses throughout the states. Lind arrived in New York to a waiting crowd of approximately 30. She had several disputes with Barnum. This wellcoordinated group would stay a few towns ahead of the travelling show. there were only 2. Incidentally.000 people. sing. The price for Genin was dear. if any of them had ever heard her sing. namely over her secret marriage and her distaste for being packaged on the evening’s entertainment bill with animals and freaks.

where they’ll not only purchase the “loss leader. Barnum offered a free “Grand Buffalo Hunt” across the Hudson River in New Jersey. Once. nobody had done it with Barnum’s efficiency. He bought 3. But Barnum didn’t care. killing 7 employees. while this sounds routine today.15. Tragically. He had leased the ferries for the day and . Again. The Loss Leader It’s common practice for supermarkets to price an item for less than they paid for it. the emaciated animals milled about and didn’t do much.000 sickly buffalo that some cowboys were to lasso. building up an excitement that this was the greatest thing ever to come so you had better not miss it. handbills and newspaper articles. which are regularly priced. They plastered towns with posters. He spent far more on advertising than his competitors generated in revenue. ads. They’re taking a page from Barnum’s book. The idea is to draw people into the store. money or on his scale. Come the day of the show. The high point was when they stampeded into the swamp. a train in 1877 carrying the Centennial circus’ advance advertising car fell through a bridge in Iowa.” but usually other items as well.

Hoaxes were part of the national psyche. made a small fortune on the fares from 25. Being urged to stay physically fit is part of today’s culture. Turns out. People appreciated Barnum because he had a flair for having people feel grateful for being manipulated. The Spirit Of The Times The reaction of the audience on the approaching ferry is not surprising. This was an age when people looked forward to being tricked. patrons on the returning ferries from the event yelled to the arrivals that the exhibition was a big farce. It’s really not unlike Nike today telling us to Just Do It.”10 He knew that people wanted to weigh in whether the topic at hand was true or false.000 people who shuttled back and forth to the event. On the Hudson River.16. They knew they had been hoodwinked. The newcomers instantly started cheering for the author of this great joke. the people didn’t care the buffalo hunt was lousy. They wanted to not only see the hoax but pay to hear . Barnum: “The bigger the humbug. He had an ability to get people to pay to be fooled. the better people will like it.

too. Ironically. to discover how deception had been 11 practiced. how it was committed. both Barnum and The Beatles display a remarkable lack of insight into human nature.17. The Beatles thought that any musician could make it big if they just tried hard. Barnum translated this understanding into . and the western tall tales that came out of it. They’re both wrong.” New York was already known as Gotham. Barnum said a man would pay a quarter to hear how he was swindled out of $20. was even more exciting than the discovery of fraud itself. both became huge successes thanks in large part to their understanding of humanity. Barnum felt that his success was based on some fundamental principles for living that anyone could adopt. There had been the Moon Hoax perpetuated by the New York Sun and Edgar Allan Poe. “Barnum understood that the opportunity to debate the issue of falsity. “the legendary town of fools. And although they were a century apart.12 There had been hoaxes dating back to Washington Irving’s Salmagundi in the early 19th century. Some have speculated that the prevalence of hoaxes had a parallel in the American frontier.

18. form major parts of many of the laws and principles of advertising that we follow today. 77 12 Harris. The company used securities that he had signed many times over. pg. extraordinary financial success. And his strategies.” 3 Harris. Endnotes 1 He was probably America’s second millionaire. pg. pg. 165-7 and others 6 Harris. pg. 103 8 Barnumiana. 7 Harris. 170. from the smallest trick to the grandest ideas. after John Jacob Astor. 68 13 Ries & Trout 14 Saxon . 133 5 Harris. pg. 2 He lost most of his fortune through an investment in the Jerome Clock Company. pg. 11 Harris. Barnum joked that his “Art of Money-Getting” speech should be called “The Art of Money-Losing. pg. so Barnum was quickly and unknowingly on the hook for much more money than he had intended. pg. 168. 60 10 Harris. pg. pg. 156 4 Vitale. 15 9 Vitale. His relentless quest to find techniques that would geneate response from his target market really is mind boggling.

Ries.New York: McGraw Hill. the Man Who Lured the Herd. 1973. Wallace. Knopf. annotated bibliography of works by or relating to P. New York: Alfred A.: Haldeman-Julius. Joe Vitale: 1996. Barnum. Irving. The History and Development of Advertising . BIBLIOGRAPHY Barnumiana: A select. Finger. There’s a Customer Born Every Minute.H. Doran & Company. Barnum. Charles J. University of Chicago Press. Presbrey. Frank.T. Philip B. Saxon.19. Kan. Selected Letters of P. and Peter W. 1929. II. 1995. 1959. Fairfield. Philip B. Humbug: The Art of P. Neil. Jack. 1985.. A. . 1983. NY: Doubleday. 1995. Life of Barnum.New York: Columbia University Press. 1924. Jr. The Fabulous Showman.Girard.Positioning: The Battle For Your Mind.T. Kunhardt. Harris. Saxon.T.Barnum. Al and Trout. Vitale. Joe. Knopf. Arthur H. CT: Jumbo’s Press. New York: Alfred A. Garden City. Compiled by Dr. Barnum.

000 people came. ** He hired a man to lay carry a brick to opposite corners in front of the museum. who made their way into the museum. a revolving lighthouse on the roof. on the theory that they would drive people into the museum to get out of earshot. Some More Tricks of his Trade Barnum was an endless stream of business-generating ideas.20. hung huge color pictures of animals outside the building. Over 60. . The man’s strange actions soon attracted a crowd. installed a balcony so the street traffic would see people visiting the Museum. and illuminated transparencies that projected images on the Museum’s walls. ** He hired the worst band he could find to play on the balcony of the American Museum. ** He put flags on the roof so people could see it from a distance. A few: ** He opened his American Museum at dawn so busy workers could visit. ** He held a baby contest to promote his new American museum in 1848. Ralph Lauren (formerly Ralph Lipshitz) can attest to the power of the right name. ** He changed Charles’ Stratton’s name to Tom Thumb.

. So he was establishing himself as an authority. but farmers wrote him wondering if pachyderms could work the fields. ** He even advertised his American Museum down the side of his per- sonal stationery. ** He wrote a handwritten intro toDollars & Sense that was printed in every copy of the book. Barnum brough the first live hippopotamus to America and the first elephant.21. but only when the train was passing by. Barnum knew the book would increase in value because people would think they had personally autographed copies. He simply wanted to publicize his New York attractions. ** Barnum published a large book calledHumbugs of the Worldin 1865. This self-promotion technique is used today. ** Barnum knew the importance of being first. calling being first gurus Jack Reis and Al Trout critical in product success and in love. Barnum had to publish a letter saying it was just a publicity stunt. Modern marketing 13 talk about this. ** He hitched a plow to Jumbo and had him work the fields by the railroad tracks in Bridgeport. Jumbo. too.

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