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

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

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

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

000 to over $30. from $11.000 displays. He immediately pushed the printers to do the biggest. 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. with steady increases every year after that.000. including a grease that was supposed to grow hair. “Perhaps for 5 floors jam-packed with 850. . It became a must see. It’s hard to overstate the Barnum’s vision here and the impact he had on advertising. 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. then gave people their money’s worth. Revenue tripled the first year. best work they had ever done. He also used posters. 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.6. Consider his situation and courage. lights and music. This was an enormously expensive gamble. So Barnum’s belief in the power of advertising really paid off. Even though he was poor and just starting out.

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

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

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

Barnum announced that anyone could publish his 8 autobiography without paying him or even asking him for permission. Barnum knew it. “I am indebted to the press … for almost every dollar . He knew that circulation was the key. 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. He offered $5.000 for the right to say the first words after the transatlantic cable was laid. In the 1880s. The Press The flip side of self-promotion is the power of the press. He was a forerunner of Richard Branson. the flamboyant founder of Virgin Atlantic. He said. It’s more like a leaky bucket. His active mind was constantly searching for the next stunt or event to keep himself and his ventures in the public consciousness. But Barnum understood that self-promotion isn’t self-perpetuating. too. Held the first beauty pageant. Newspaper and magazine coverage is free advertising that carries more weight because it has news credibility without the stigma of a paid message.10.

Barnum had friends from southern cities send newspaper editors mentioning that a British naturalist had a remarkable mermaid with him. It still happens occasionally. publisher of Rolling Stone magazine. each thinking they were getting an “exclusive. When it came to New York. This all worked to arouse the public’s appetite. is a modern figure who has profited with .” Finally. 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. Barnum permitted the reporters to have a close examination of it. he arranged for a week-long lecture series concerning the mermaid. He advertised that it was now on display at the American Museum “without extra charge. Jan Wenner.” Gate receipts tripled. 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.11. His exploitation of the press was so pervasive that it helped create the division between editorial and advertising departments that exists today. which convinced many of its authenticity. To promote the Fejee Mermaid. which I possess ….

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

$200. 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. He painted the picture of an angel.13. this news carried greater weight than her singing voice. For six months.000 in advance to manage an American tour for her. a train conductor’s innocent question made him realize that nobody in America knew who she was. Know Your Audience. Undaunted. Like Cicero the orator said. Barnum held a contest to write an “Ode to America” for Lind to . Only a few hours later. Barnum created the greatest advance advertising campaign America had ever seen. Barnum emphasized the parts of the Lind Jenny Lind arrives in America story that most appealed to people.

but it gave the haberdasher national fame and helped increase his business many fold. though. . and persuaded his friend Genin the Hatter to bid the most for them. He even held an auction for opening-night tickets. Lind didn’t disappoint. He had a hotel proprietor pay $1. Lind arrived in New York to a waiting crowd of approximately 30. Incidentally. playing to packed houses throughout the states.14.000 for the “rights” to house her. there were only 2. This wellcoordinated group would stay a few towns ahead of the travelling show. Another example is Barnum’s huge circus advance team.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.000 people. Few. When she left to return to Europe. 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. It was all the product of Barnum’s teaser campaign. She had several disputes with Barnum. sing. The price for Genin was dear.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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