For all those venturing out this Christmas to see Hugh Jackman’s “The Greatest Showman” here is my view on the real Phineas Emperor of Hype
I’ve often been asked about my fantasy dinner party guests from history. It’s a fluctuating list, but one man always comes out on top; the great American Showman PT Barnum.
For someone like me, who has spent a career obsessed with the art and craft of public relations, publicity and the irresistible power of great story telling, Barnum is perhaps the most inspiring figure in the history of showbiz.
He was the unsurpassed master of hype. You can listen to modish analyses of modern communications and you can join the high priests of Google worshipping at the altar of big data. But the fact is that all of the media we consume – from the papers we read to the soundbites we retweet – boils down to ballyhoo. Barnum knew better than anyone the power of the crowd – long before Facebook and Twitter, he had viral marketing down pat.
Though he died over 100 years ago, Barnum’s writings and life story provide the best guide to the art of publicity as you’re ever likely to get.
The potted biography: Barnum was born in 1810. He was America’s second millionaire. He was so well known that a letter mailed from New Zealand addressed “Mr.Barnum, America” reached him without a hitch. He knew every important person of his time, from presidents and royalty to celebrities and inventors. He went buffalo hunting with General Custer, and was friends with Mark Twain and Abraham Lincoln. He was bankrupted twice, had businesses and mansions destroyed by fires (five conflagrations in total in his lifetime), but still died America’s richest man. He was a famous speaker, showman, investor, entrepreneur and marketing genius. He was an outspoken critic of slavery, he was imprisoned for writing about his religious beliefs, he was named as a possible presidential candidate, and he was a tireless philanthropist.
He started out selling lottery tickets at the age of 12. When he was 25, he exhibited a woman called Joice Heth, whom he was reliably informed had been George Washington’s nurse, and who gave him a convincing account of the great man’s childhood. The fact that this would have made her 161 years old simply added to the excitement. Thanks to Barnum’s tireless publicity, this improbable individual drew crowds to the tune of $1,500 per week.
He created Barnum’s American Museum in New York (a display of wonders, monstrosities and curiosities), he turned an elephant from London Zoo into an international superstar, and he created the Greatest Show on Earth, which seated 10,000 people at the time and was then the largest circus venture in American history grossing $400,000 in its first year of operation.
How’s that for a breathless resume of an incredible life story? Pretty impressive: and on April 7th 1891, several weeks before he died peacefully in his sleep, Barnum read his own obituary in The New York Sun. He’d once commented that the press only say nice things about people after they die. So they ran the obituary on the front page with the headline “Great and Only Barnum – He Wanted To Read His Own Obituary – Here It Is”.
I would read my own obituary a happy man if I could achieve just a fraction of what Barnum achieved. What inspires me most about this prodigious talent (and admittedly my view is swayed by my perspective as a PR professional) was his instinctive grasp of publicity. The great personalities in business and entertainment today – the likes of Cameron Mackintosh, Simon Cowell, even Bill Gates – instinctively understand the power of the media at the very foundation of their business. Over a century earlier, Barnum had already realised this. Shortly before his death he said “I am indebted to the press of the United States for almost every dollar that I possess”. Ahead of his time doesn’t even begin to cover it.
Entertainment is about stimulating the imagination. Whether the provenance of Barnum’s exhibits (which were so central to his early success) was real or imagined, they always provoked and inspired his audience.
The Feejee Mermaid was a case in point. This was one of the exhibits at Barnum’s American Museum in New York which he purchased in 1841 and turned into a 19th century version of Disneyland.
The pre-publicity depicted a dazzlingly beautiful young creature with long tresses. Purportedly, the FeejeeMermaid had been purchased near Calcutta by a Boston seaman. The fevered, enchanted public, wound up to by Barnum’s hyperbole, flocked to view this marvel. What they saw, in a dimly lit display, was no sultry starlet with a tail, but a hideous mouldy carcass comprising the top of a monkey sewn onto a fish. In short, a load of baloney. But few seemed to resent having parted with 25 cents to see this odd object, on the grounds that (a) it might – just might – be a mermaid and (b) what on earth does a monkey stitched to fish look like anyway?
Barnum knew this all too well. He loved to stir up controversy, and he provoked scientists to attack the feasibility of his creature. He understood the fact that no one appreciates having a romantic notion utterly dissed by some smart-arse sceptic in a white coat standing beside a centrifuge.
Having whipped up an onslaught of critical opinion, Barnum issued a clarion call, asking the public to “decide for themselves, when doctors disagree”. Which the public duly did. Takings rose 300% and each individual emerged from the exhibit expressing a clear opinion which – either way – turned them into a salesperson for the show.
For many at the time, and certainly viewed through a modern lens, Barnum’s activities amounted to exploitation – not only of his audiences, but more significantly of the ‘exhibits’ that appeared in his shows. It’s true tales such as that of African American William Henry Johnson, displayed as a potential ‘missing link’ between man and ape under the title ‘What is it?’, are more than a little unpalatable for a contemporary palate. But the criticism isn’t entirely fair; those that appeared in his shows (including Johnson) frequently viewed themselves as partners with Barnum, and many grew exceptionally wealthy off the back of it. Take the example of Charles Stretton, a 24” man who was renamed ‘General Tom Thumb’. Ultimately he became one of the richest men of his era, a favourite of Queen Victoria and President Lincoln and a regular darling of the London high society scene. He owned several fashionable homes and a steam yacht, and even bailed Barnum out when he encountered financial difficulties. His funeral when he died at the age of 45 was attended by over 20,000 people.
There’s a sucker born every minute true enough, and there are plenty of suckers who believe that the statement was made by Barnum. Barnum believed there was a customer born every minute. He would never have shown such disrespect to his audiences. On the contrary, he operated on the principle that “every crowd has a silver lining”, and he also once said that “the public is wiser than many imagine”.
It was a banker called David Hannum, who made the statement. In America in 1869, talk that giants that once walked the earth was rife. Speculation reached fever pitch when a set of ‘fossil bones’, apparently belonging to a giant man, turned up in farmland in upstate New York. The fascination of this marvel generated a tidy income from folk happy to hand over 25 cents apiece for admission to the sight.
Within a week, the giant had been sold to David Hannum for $30,000. Apparently, Barnum had offered $50,000, but he was unsuccessful. But sensing it was a fake, he built a giant of his own, and proclaimed that Hannum’s giant was a fake, and his was the real thing. Hannum countered in the strongest possible terms. Barnum had the fake, he had the real thing. Strong words were exchanged, and ultimately – in reference to those who flocked to see Barnum’s giant rather than the real McCoy and in an attempt to alienate Barnum’s audience and bring them onside – Hannum commented bitterly “there’s a sucker born every minute”. He then took Barnum to court: as the case ground on, Hannum was ultimately forced to confess that the Cardiff Giant was indeed a fake. Which rather derailed his case.
Subsequently Hannum sank into obscurity. But the memory of the incident lived on, as did the memory of the remark. Since Hannum was forgotten, the line was incorrectly attributed to Barnum. Which is a great sadness; Barnum was never in the business of maliciously suckering people.
In media terms, Barnum was a force to be reckoned with. He was the first experiential marketer. The owner of the New York Herald purchased a plot of land from Barnum. He realised too late, that he’d paid over the odds, and asked for some of his money back. Barnum refused, so the New York Herald played tit for tat and refused to take Barnum’s advertising. Barnum responded by organizing an entertainment industry boycott of the Herald. The Herald buckled. It could not survive without the income: and it could not survive without the stream of content that Barnum’s projects generated.
There are obvious differences between Barnum’s time and our own. We have a hugely fragmented media, with manifold communications channels available to us. Were he alive today, Barnum would exploit them all with the buccaneering zeal that characterized his work. He would be using mobile technology, ecommerce, websites, social media and whatever else he could lay his hands on.
What lies at the heart of what Barnum did is the love of a good story, and that is why so much of what he did still resonates today. Stories are something man has yearned for ever since he first sat down and listened to an elder telling ancient myths, and they are just important in the narratives that extend across social media platforms now. For want of a very large camp fire, Barnum used the media as the platform to tell his stories. And his stories turned into sales.
There are truly too many great Barnum’s stories to include here. His autobiography is the ultimate insight into the man and his methods. Who else but Barnum would have thought of employing an elephant to plough fields alongside rail-tracks running into major cities, in order to provoke excitement about his show, yet to arrive in town? It all served a commercial purpose, but his stunts were also meticulously conceived productions which made a dramatic impression on the lives of millions. Some live on to this day: in a number of states in America, it is still illegal to plough fields with elephants.
At the time of Barnum’s death The Times of London, commented that “his name is a proverb already, and will continue to be a proverb until mankind has ceased to find pleasure in the comedy of a harmless deceiver and the willingly deceived”. That day is unlikely to come any time soon, and the legacy of Barnum lives on.