Phineas Taylor Barnum or P. T. Barnum was applauded as the ‘Greatest Showman’ to have ever lived. A man much ahead of his time, he knew the true power of media coverage and harnessed it for his benefit. He was an American politician, showman and businessman who went on to found the Barnum & Bailey Circus and the Barney’s American Museum which was full of curiosities and oddities. He understood human psychology very well and exploited the innate curiosity of human beings for the weird and shocking. His contribution is so legendary that a film was made on him.
He was born on July 5, 1810 Bethel, Connecticut. His life was a struggle but he rose to become a celebrated entertainer who enthralled millions by his sheer genius for putting together entertainment and packaging it effectively and marketing it with amazing results. He started his career in 1835 with ‘Barnum’s Grand Scientific and Musical Theater’. Later, in 1841, he bought the Scudder’s American Museum, New York City and renamed it ‘Barnum’s American Museum.’ This kept growing over the years and was promoted as a collection that featured 850,000 exhibits and curiosities . Barnum’s first fortune was made here.
Pioneering “Freak shows”
P T Barnum was the leading pioneer of “Freak shows” which became hugely popular. Barnum’s first show was with a paralyzed slave named Joice Heth. Her age was around 80 but he promoted her as George Washington’s 161-year-old nurse. He employed many ingenious ways to promote his shows, sometimes going quite overboard, yet it worked wonders for him. He tried the controversy route to increase ticket sales. He would write a harsh, anonymous letter addressed to the editor of the newspaper in the place where she was being exhibited. This letter would go on to doubt her authenticity. This controversy and even more ticket sales. He travelled with her show quite a bit to the northeast of America until her death in 1836.
He hired a dwarf and made him a star with the stage name ‘General Tom Thumb’. He persuaded New York editors to publish articles on his singing and dancing talent. Barnum managed to create such a buzz around him that when he went on a tour of England, the company was given an audience with Queen Victoria and the royal family besides many top dignitaries.
The power of publicity stunts
Barnum was a master of publicity stunts and knew how to draw people irresistibly. He would craft staged events that would make people sit up and take notice and especially get press attention. Once he did the unthinkable by getting a circus elephant to plough his house’s front yard. This grabbed the attention of commuters on the train tracks near by and also had press reporters rushing to get a peek at the spectacle!
Fresh ideas always win!
What made Barnum’s shows a success was the novelty of it all! His events had elements never seen before. He garnered the maximum publicity coverage with an article on the marriage of two performers who were extreme opposites, the husband was extremely thin and the wife extremely fat, in fact she weighed ten times more than her husband!
Trying out new mediums
He was also a pioneer in coming up with using new methods to promote his ventures. His American Museum was located at the corner of Broadway and Ann Street in Manhattan and to advertise its new attractions, he would drape the building with new outsized banners. This is being followed by major museums across the globe today. Another interesting method he used was plastering horse-drawn wagons with posters and signs and making them travel throughout New York. This too has been adopted in today’s world with promotions plastered on buses and other vehicles. His museum reaped the benefits of his unique promotions drawing 400,000 visitors a year in the mid-1800s. This was nothing short of a major achievement.
Barnum knew that keeping the press in good humour was important to the growth of his business. He built strong relationships with press reporters. He would give a few select ones behind-the-scenes access to his circus making them feel privileged and they would turn ambassadors for him.
Barnum had a great talent for the written word and wrote most of his publicity material. He knew all the tricks that would arrest the attention of the public and used all these techniques to advantage.
Combining paid and earned media
He knew how to use a judicious mix of earned and paid media to further his ambitions. He took a review from one publication and used this in ads in other publications. He went a step further and also announced a discount for those who brought the cutting to the ticket counter.
Barnum no doubt is one of the personalities that anyone in PR or marketing must study.