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.