The greatest showman lived – P.T. Barnum

You cannot live in the world of advertising without knowing who actually began the whole idea of advertisement, public relations and self-promotion.

This great man, I will call him the father of original advertising and event promotion, was Phineas Taylor Barnum (1810-1891). Well known as P.T. Barnum, he carries the title as the greatest showman ever lived in human history. He was an American businessman, politician and showman who owned his own circus called the Barnum and Bailey Circus.

This man did surprising things that men today may not even dare to try. Let me summarize his career into three interesting events:

The Circus King – Self-promotion: He promoted his traveling shows in marvelous ways. He began the idea of freak shows (displaying people with disabilities/specialties) and called it “The Greatest Show on Earth” in 1872. He was also the first circus owner who transported his circus by train. Does it remind you of all the cartoons that you’ve watch at a young age that you never wonder why circus animals and people are all transporting by train? Barnum used live advertisement back in those days to announce his shows. He put up small stages by the end of the street and have people acting at the same time promoting his circus shows. Note: Barnum also uses a certain typeface on all his posters, known today as the Barnum type.

First Artist Tour – Public Relations: In 1850, Barnum managed singer Jenny Lind’s tour in America at $1,000 for 150 nights. Jenny Lind was a European and nobody knew her in America. However, she was well-liked by Queen Victoria. Almost everyone thinks that Barnum was taking a great risk but in fact, he was a smart businessman. He said, “the public is a very strange animal, and although a good knowledge of human nature will generally lead a caterer for amusement to hit the people right, they are fickle and ofttimes perverse.”

Hoaxes – Advertisement: One of Barnum greatest effort in his showman career, was creating this hoax about showing a blind and almost completely paralyzed slave woman – Joice Heth – who claimed to be over 160 years old and had been George Washington’s nurse. Again, Barnum was smart. He knew people who would just pay a penny to see this woman who changed Washington’s diapers. Barnum made a big deal out of this. This was back in 1835, no medical technology could prove the validity of Joice Heth’s age. In fact, Joice Heth died in 1836, with no more than 80 years old. But Barnum made his fortune, so who cares?

So, if you notice Barnum’s style, he was a strong man with a courageous mind. He dared to pursue risks that no one thought was possible to achieve. As an advertising major, I constantly remind myself about taking the one step forward and putting in extra effort in trying new things. Nobody likes an outdated advertising creative. So, to put that in today’s language, Barnum is teaching us to know our market well, advertise intensely and do what others won’t do.

“There’s a sucker born every minute.” – P.T. Barnum


About Jason Tham

Jason Tham is a PhD student at the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis. His research interests are digital pedagogy, connectivism and connected learning, computers and writing, and visual rhetoric.
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