Posts Tagged ‘Barnum’

The Essex Lion and the Roar of the Crowd

The bank holiday would not be complete with out a silly season story. This year we were spoiled with the legend of the itinerant Essex lion. Mysteriously, an escaped lion was spotted on the loose in Essex, instilling panic as it roamed the grassland of St Osyth.

The big game media hunters turned up in their droves, hunting down a witty soundbite. The search for the elusive big cat provided a never ending stream of comic reports for the 24 minute news cycle. Twitter and other social media channels were awash with jokes surrounding the #EssexLion, lending their weight to this most agreeable meme.

I smelt a rat. The tale had all the hallmarks of a publicity stunt – a classic Circus scam. The history of promoting circus is littered with highly mischievous stunts just like it.The huge U.S. animal circuses cooked up some of the finest. Clever showmen regularly freed the odd exotic into a town to create excitement; generous rewards were offered to the person who might trap and return the errant animal. An escaped beast was a headline grabbing way to announce the circus had come to town.

The kangaroo was traditionally favoured for such a stunt- one of the most exotic animals and perhaps the most benign. One famous boxing kangaroo spent more time on the run than in its cage. But the trend was soon spotted by the authorities: legislation, fines and licencing red tape followed bringing the practice to an end.

No matter to our intrepid circus promoters. Great showmen, like the maverick genius P.T. Barnum, knew a thing or two about the influence of the herd. He recognised his audience as his greatest marketing asset. If the crowd was excited, word of mouth- and ticket sales- inevitably followed. Barnum was the original viral marketeer.

So when the legislation curtailed the lost wild animal scam, they turned to what they knew best: the power of the story. Roland Butler, perhaps the greatest circus PR man, trained a team of men to spread the rumour instead. They were fantastic story tellers who would visit bars and churches to suggest the idea of an escaped beast. Butler quickly realised that if the narrative was a captivating story meme, a simple idea – even without any proof- it would spread like a bush fire. Similar rumour and disinformation tactics were used by special forces in Nazi occupied Europe to destabilise occupation.

Perhaps time will tell if the Essex Lion was PR fabrication, mass hallucination, or a simple case of mistaken feline identity. Ultimately, whether or not there was an escaped big cat prowling St Osyth is irrelevant. The power of the social driven media age proves that we are more interested in the potential and context of the story, rather than the truth. Especially when we need some enjoyment to help us forget the damp Bank Holiday weekend.

Derren Brown: The Art of Understanding

20110615-013128.jpgI admire two people. One is dead and one alive. The dead one is the great American showman PT Barnum. He is my muse. Why? Discovering his legacy influenced my thinking on the power of the crowd enormously. Barnum’s majestic stunts were works of genius – they went viral long, long before that word sneaked into modern parlance. He was so influential that people tried to attribute quotes to him that denigrated his approach. He never said: “There’s a sucker born every minute” but he did say: “Every crowd has a silver lining.”

Way back in 2003 I scribbled a note about another great virtuoso; one who is very much alive. He is Derren Brown. Derren Brown mesmerises me. On the occasions I have been lucky enough to see him perform live, I have marvelled at his persuasive power. I felt his showmanship was so important, I defended it after it attracted negative press when he staged a controversial Russian Roulette stunt on Channel 4. The media called foul, but I believed it was a masterstroke that confirmed his showmanship and considerable talent.

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Breaking X Factor in America

This weekend the nation gathers around the TV once again, to watch the X Factor final; the uber-karaoke contest live from the Wembley’s Amphitheatrum Flavium, thumbs poised for pollice verso. Tomorrow we will marvel at the victor who, with scrupulous and unaffected dignity, will be giving thanks to the loyal viewers for allowing him or her to live the dream.

Predicted viewing figures suggest a modern record which will grab the headlines and refocus attention on the Dark Lord himself, Simon Cowell. You know, he who can walk on water, the saviour of ITV, the man who has redefined event TV.

I, on the other hand, will be more interested to see how the narrative of the next chapter of Simon Cowell’s personal story shapes as he moves the X Factor juggernaut to trundle through America. Will his throne be exposed as a bench covered with velvet?

The man charged with managing this important move is Matt Hiltzic. Evidently, he told a friend of mine last weekend that he has been appointed as chief strategic advisor on X Factor, working directly with Cowell. Read the rest of this entry »

Archaos: The Sensations of the Circus World

The first uber client Borkowski PR ever had was Archaos, the punk circus which scandalized the UK between 1988 and 1991 with dangerous chainsaw-juggling, a raunchy Gallic attitude and explosive, two-fingers-in-the-face-of Health & Safety performances. The UK circus scene was shaken to its very core and would never be the same again. And I’m proud to have been the impropergandist that crafted their media profile, and equally proud to be celebrating them with an exhibition this September.

The groundbreaking campaign for Archaos we conducted for Archaos was the foundation for the Borkowski ethos. One of the immutable things about the company is our attachment to a good yarn, a great tale, a strange story, a bit of salacious gossip, a secret confidence, an odd anecdote or an outlandish rumour. We work with the stuff of conversation – the sort that fuels all social interactions. Barnum knew it, and he knew how to get conversations going to his commercial advantage. Read the rest of this entry »

BP PR: Too Slick or Not Too Slick?

BP’s PR machine has been in overdrive of late; their latest effort at saying “look how hard we’re working to sort the oil spill out” is a live roving webcam monitoring the clean-up effort. I’ve tried to go on it but it’s never operational – either broken or offline. Whether that’s by overload of people looking or by design remains to be seen.

I wonder what Barnum would have done? Yesterday, I went to see an exhibition on him for the 200th anniversary of his birth in Sheffield at the National Circus and Fairground archive at the University of Sheffield, run by Vanessa Toumin. It was brought home to me once again that Barnum never lost an opportunity to network with the famous people of his day, such as Mark Twain, and make sure that he and his ideas were deeply embedded in the 19th century conversation. Read the rest of this entry »

Michael Jackson’s Funeral: The Greatest Show on Earth?

And so Michael Jackson is to be put to rest – or his physical form is at least. There is no doubt that his name, his brand and his image will live on for as long as it makes money. Death is merely a chapter break in the life of Michael Jackson – it’s not a full stop.

Floral for Michael Jackson tributes in LA

Floral tributes for Michael Jackson in LA

The allegations of paedophilia that haunted Jackson’s final years have all but disappeared and now is the time for a show to close that chapter of Jackson’s life – a show to end all shows and to begin new ones. The funeral seems to be gearing up to be a show for people to demonstrate love and adoration for Jackson – but it also seems to be more about the people commemorating Jackson than about Jackson himself. Shaheen Jafargholi, who sang a Jackson song on Britain’s Got Talent, will be there, singing alongside Stevie Wonder, Mariah Carey and more.

Like Princess Diana before, the crowds are gathering to mutually support each other at the Staples Centre and mutually assure that they forget the rough patches in Jackson’s life. But I’m more interested in the people who aren’t going to be there – David Blaine is in this country, Lisa Marie Presley is abroad. How will they be mourning?

The media gearing up for Jackson's funeral

The media gearing up for Jackson's funeral

There’s another funeral Jackson’s looks set to resemble – that of Phineas Taylor Barnum. It’s curious, given the freakish nature of much of Jackson’s life in the limelight, that his funeral should resemble that of the man who travelled the world with a freak show. But Barnum was canny enough to know that he was dying and well loved enough to get a copy of his own obituary a day or two before he died. It’s hard to imagine Jackson even countenancing the idea that he might die.

Here’s a report on the funeral of Barnum, written a little after the event over 100 years ago.

“The morning was cold, gray, and dismal. Nature’s heart, with the spring joy put back and deadened, symboled the melancholy that had fallen upon Bridgeport. No town was ever more transformed than was this city by one earthly event. On the public and private buildings were hung the habiliments of woe; flags were at half mast, and, in the store windows were to be seen innumerable portraits and likenesses of the dead citizen, surrounded by dark drapery, or embedded in flowers.

“Nor was this all. The people on the street and in the windows of their houses seemed to be thinking of but one thing–their common loss. The pedestrian walked slower; the voices of talkers, even among the rougher classes, were more subdued, and in their looks was imprinted the unmistakable signal of no common or ordinary bereavement.

“The large church was not only filled, with its lecture-room, a considerable time before the hour set for the services; but thousands of people crowded the sidewalks near-by for hours, knowing they could only see the arrival and departure of the funeral cortege. The private services at the house, “Marina,” near the Seaside Park, which preceded the public services in the church, were simple and were only witnessed and participated in by the relatives and immediate friends.”

More preparations for Jackson's funeral

More preparations for Jackson's funeral

It will be interesting to see how long the current state of post-Jackson euphoria-in-loss lasts – a lot of smoke went up over the allegations that marred his final years. Will any of it be blown away in the coming months? One thing is certain; if a brand is powerful enough and has enough money behind it, anything unsavoury can be made to disappear, as the fixers at MGM proved in the 1930s.

I’ll close with another quote from the report on Barnum’s death:

“When, in 1889, the veteran brought over his shipload of giants and dwarfs, chariots and waxworks, spangles and circus-riders, to entertain the people of London, one wanted a Carlyle to come forward with a discourse upon ‘the Hero as Showman.’ It was the ne plus ultra of publicity. There was a three-fold show–the things in the stalls and cages, the showman, and the world itself. And of the three perhaps Barnum himself was the most interesting. The chariot races and the monstrosities we can get elsewhere, but the octogenarian showman was unique. His name is a proverb already, and a proverb it will continue.”

Jackson was, without doubt, a huge brand at the heart of a huge, freakish circus and was the most interesting thing in it – as the recent outpourings prove. But will Jackson become a proverb – or just a bogeyman? Only time will tell.

Only time will tell for this message

Boyle-ing Point: The Caustic Nature of Fame

There’s not that much of a gap between Phineas Taylor Barnum, grandmaster of the freak show, and Simon Cowell. Both Barnum and Cowell are exemplars of transmuting showbiz into mega-biz gold. The difference is that we look back now, 150 years later, and judge the freakshows that made Barnum’s name as exploitative and degrading. I wonder how we will judge Britain’s Got Talent in 30 years time?

There is no doubt that Barnum would have loved Britain’s Got Talent – a cost-effective format that gathers a collection of strange and strangely determined people into its fold and pushes their saleability, if they have any, to the hilt. It’s nothing new – Russell Birdwell conducted star searches for Selznick International back in the 1930s, the Harry Potter films made a public search for their star. The only new thing in the mix is the ability to spread word on the show’s latest runaway idol to the world in seconds flat via YouTube, Twitter, Facebook and the blogosphere.

Cowell is a remarkable man, who puts the business into show with enormous skill. With Britain’s Got Talent, he has recognised, as Barnum did, that there is a vast well of public desire to ogle. They invest briefly in the people that X Factor and Britain’s Got Talent draw out of the woodwork, admire them and root for them for a time when the sing or perform well – within a certain set of strictures – and then watch as they sink slowly and unwillingly back into oblivion.

There is a huge appetite for the fairytale ending on TV shows such as Britain’s Got Talent, but beyond the fairytale endings, real life isn’t that simple. The audience is always going to want to know what happens next. The pressure of expectation, especially on a global scale, is enough to make anyone crack, let alone a woman with learning difficulties who has been plucked from obscurity and plunged into the vast acid bath of fame. Susan Boyle may be an ugly duckling who has become a swan, but what happens when the public find the next ugly duckling to swoon over? What it amounts to, from either end of the process, is too much pressure on the shoulders of Susan Boyle.

Susan Boyle is very unlikely to be anything but a one hit wonder. I’ll stick my neck out and say that it may well be a mega-hit on the back of all the euphoria because yes, she has a very good voice. Britain’s Got Talent has lifted her from obscurity, but the trouble is it also seems to expect her to deal with the pressures of fame on a scale that nobody could have predicted. The show side-steps the well-worn cliché of the long pub tours and constant struggle that has marked the progress to fame in the past – a process which was still no guarantee of steeling the acts it produced for the sudden onrush of the corrosive processes of mega-fame. Despite the quality of Boyle’s voice and the willingness of the public to love her at the moment, I still can’t see this as a lasting love affair.

I’m not attacking Susan Boyle when I say that I don’t think that people will pay to see her perform in six months time. I just don’t think she’s got the wherewithal to withstand the pressures of fame and I don’t believe the public will stick with her, because too many of them are too in love with the moment of her transformation to consider or care what happens beyond the happy ever after moment of that one big hit, other than to watch her implode. She is not a role model because there is no room for role models in the world of ‘pile ‘em high and sell ‘em cheap’ celebrity.

What I am attacking is the process, the public expectation, the weight being placed on Boyle’s shoulders. As I told the Times, “’You can’t pluck somebody with those issues and fix them overnight. This has been a fantastic soap opera for the fame-makers, Syco [Simon Cowell’s record label] and Talkback TV. I’m not suggesting that they are cynical and deliberately looking to exploit, but they have got their eye on the buck. They’ve done very well out of Paul Potts and they want to see what they can make out of this. We are beginning to see more and more people who are casualties of the process. Jade Goody was over. She was resurrected by her illness.’”

If Boyle overcomes the caustic nature of fame and makes a real go of it – wonderful! I’ll gladly be proved wrong. But I honestly believe that she will have one huge hit and then slowly disappear, most likely because the public will have found another fairytale to follow. If that happens, I just hope the realization that it’s all gone away doesn’t destroy an already palpably fragile woman. She doesn’t deserve that.

Max Clifford: Media Ringmaster

Put any misgivings about Jade Goody’s Barnumesque three-ring Circus sideshow to one side for moment. Instead, focus on the silver fox who has been the undisputed ringmaster of recent events in her life; Max Clifford.

He may not be attired in a garish ring suit, but Max Clifford is clearly visible as the man, centre stage, pulling the financial strings. This is not written as a genuflection to the cult of Clifford, more as an explanation of the reality; he is doing something more than a mere job – he is reacting to the peccadilloes of the age.

Clearly it is necessary for him to either not care about Jade or refuse to be paid to do that job; to carry it off, he has to place himself into a zone devoid of any emotion. Max remains calm, confident and never flustered despite the slings and arrows aimed at him. His style of delivery has been criticized but it is deliberate, matter of fact. Max is a spokesman; he is doing a job that few can deliver. Reminiscent of a river pilot steering his charge through dangerous and congested waters, Max vigilantly avoids all the sandbanks that might scupper the good ship of any celebrity brand he is steering. Max has always functioned in the wasteland between public merit and clandestine vice, creating content for the curtain-twitching masses–none of whom will ever admit to their trivia addiction.

This weekend was a high water mark in the celebrity-obsessed world we have allowed to prosper. The enduring picture we have taken away from Jade Goody’s wedding, however, was not the pitiful Goody forcing a smile through the pain; it was Max, surrounded by a sea of microphones and flanked by camera lenses. Like an effortless high wire act juggling nine clubs, he kept the media audience outside and inside the big top entertained in a style that few understand, measuring each sound bite for maximum effect.

Waspish bourgeois media dinner parties, I am sure, have a curt point of view regarding Clifford’s modus operandi. But they fail to comprehend his skill. Yes, he has enemies but he knows the power of collateral. For decades he has not compromised his style; he knows what works and the power of his personal business relationships. He’s happier to operate openly, on the phone and in the flesh. His skill can’t be replicated by a miracle app. Max has not bowed to the digital age and his instinct, shaped by decades of experience, is impossible to learn without years in the foxhole. Despite operating in the age of time compression, Max confounds the 24-7 swirl. His telltale grey hair is an insignia, a livery, which indicates his membership of a unique Guild that few have the skill or stamina to join.

I have often observed his methods of dealing with each media ruck and marvelled at his deft hand-off passes, reminiscent of the Welsh wizard Gareth Edwards in full flow. He is an adept distracter who knows how to deliver up a sound byte in an utterly disarming fashion whilst keeping the uber-media paymaster happy. He’s more than aware that one false move, one slip, could lead to a chain reaction that could negate the final payment of the big check.

When the cameras stop rolling and Jade becomes a sad footnote in Celebrity-ville, Max will pop up again and again; he is a brand and he occupies a unique place in the media landscape. If you’re in the public eye and you need to exploit your 15 months of fame quickly, he is accessible. Max has his finger on the pulse.

It seems to me that his type of PR has been genetically engineered in the last 15 years to suit the times. But, despite this engineering, I do not see any Clifford clones or heirs to his throne coming up through the ranks. Is this because of the way PR is retrenching, underscoring the inability of the new breed to come to terms with the ever-shifting churn of media from both side of the fence? Or will the next few years create a world where celebrity will not be able to command the fees that a new Max can make a meaningful profit from?

There are a number of PR people out there who need to take a clear look at Max Clifford. These are the people who decry his tactics and lampoon his deadpan manner with the press, the people who are rushing headlong into the digital media age without any grounding in the skills that have made him such a success; most notably the 360 degree vision that allows him to spot incoming missiles before they hit, be they aimed at him or his clients. Regardless of what anyone thinks of him, there is much that can be learned from him.

To some, Max Clifford will be an apotheosis of the media and to others the rationale for moral intervention, but he is first and foremost a creation of the media and of his clients. His success in finding a continually crashing wave of “sordid human interest” stories for the tabloid press has been unparalleled over the last 20 years, a new age that has seen the boundaries of morality and taste shifting significantly.

He is a prime example of the squalor of the universal global media. Without modern media poverty, he could never have been successful. The future for Max is to help people amortize the moral morass because the morality compass was demagnetized decades ago and he is one of the few people still making it twitch.

Make no mistake, the floorboards of his office will creak under the weight of many more scandals for years yet.

David Blaine: Word of Mouth Showman Supreme

A breakfast meeting with David Blaine last week was a very pleasing and revelatory experience; it’s good to sit and talk with someone who really, really gets true showmanship, spectacle, creativity, word of mouth and viral publicity and who has encountered many of the same things I’ve encountered, even the Russian circus act with a coat of living minks.

Blaine is a great, great grandson of Barnum and has built his persona on the Barnum and Houdini models, always connecting with his audience and constantly astonishing them. Most importantly, he is always sure that they are talking about him. He knows that without promotion something terrible happens. Nothing!

A perfect case in point is the trick he showed me. I didn’t dare ask – it felt too gauche – but Blaine offered. He got me to shuffle a pack of cards and lay out two lines of ten cards, making sure that each one was different. Then he asked me to take ten of them and hold them behind my back. Next, he suggested I look at the remaining cards and mentally pick one. “Not the Ace, it’s too obvious,” he said.

I chose the four of diamonds and told him that I’d chosen. Next, he made a gesture and told me to place the cards I held behind my back on the table. The ten cards I had hidden behind me were now eleven in number and sure enough, the eleventh card was the four of diamonds. I was gob-smacked. I have absolutely no idea how he did it – it seems an impossible trick.

But this is the reaction Blaine is constantly seeking, since he instinctively knows I would go away and talk to several people about the trick and how astonishing it was and, in this way, his reputation would be perpetuated. Now, of course, I am also blogging about it. The chances are that his reputation will spread in ever increasing circles if everyone who is astonished by him does as I have done.

Just as interesting was the revelation that Blaine actively thrived on the people who came and taunted him with food and insults whilst he was attempting to live on only 4.5 litres of water a day in a Plexiglas box above the Thames. “I needed people to react in the way that the did to get through the stunt,” he told me.

Their antipathy during his 44 days of starvation gave him something to prove to the haters and became a media focus for the endurance stunt, guaranteeing it more coverage and even comments from then-President Bush. No wonder he was heard to murmur “I love you all” when he finally completed the stunt.

He is the greatest modern showman / illusionist and will remain popular as long he can maintain the incredibly high creativity, the quality of his unique stunts and continue to amaze and astonish. Celebrities, brands and publicists have a lot to learn from David Blaine.

Reality Show Rehab: Car Crash TV

The ghost of Barnum is stalking TV land, as a new show displaying the dark and slightly freakish side of celebrity seems to be proving: Living TV’s Rehab. And some less-than-A list celebrities are queuing up to take part. One, who was turned down, was apparently eager to get on the show and discuss their sex addiction, but Living TV seems to have repulsed this entrant in favour of more damaged celebrities.

So Peter Sellers’ daughter Victoria is in, combating drug addiction, alongside the alcoholics Les McKeown from the Bay City Rollers, Robin Le Mesurier, son of John Le Mesurier and Hattie Jaques, and Rowetta Satchell, former X Factor contestant and a number of others, including Alicia Douvall, who is fighting body dysmorphia and Cassie Sumner, who is struggling to beat bulimia.

It’s outrageously exploitative of these sad and, ultimately, unfortunate fame seekers – we get to watch their pain in what was once the last refuge of the famous or the wanabee famous. Rehab was the one place in which their putative mystery could be preserved, the one place they could hide, if only for a little while. Strip that mystery, that hiding place, away and what is left of the celebrity?

This is car crash television of the highest order – and it seems unlikely that many of the participants’ careers will survive the experience. This Rehab could damage them for life and Living TV are doubtless loving every moment – but it could well be a case of killing the goose that laid the golden egg.