“His name is a proverb already, and a proverb it will continue.” 1
P.T. Barnum is a name synonymous with entertainment and advertising. He reigned from the mid to late 19th century with his various entertainment endeavors, beginning in 1842 when he purchased the American Museum. The museum showcased “natural curiosities” such as a 25-inch tall man, a 161-year-old woman, a mermaid and other living exhibits 2. Turns out none of the exhibits were actually what they claimed to be but who could’ve seen that coming?
The late 1840s and early 50s brought a new opportunity to Barnum when he decided to represent Jenny Lind, a Swedish opera singer, in an attempt to fulfill America’s desire for a more civilized form of entertainment and to legitimize his work. Later came the 70s, and along with it Barnum’s circus ventures, which are probably his most famous accomplishments. “The Greatest Show on Earth,” once combined with James Bailey’s “The Great London Show,” became a huge success thanks to Jumbo, the six and a half-ton elephant Bailey and Barnum purchased in 1881 3.
Barnum’s many entertainment attempts were all seemingly successful due to his use of effective advertising. Truth be told, P.T. Barnum is the man behind modern advertising. He was the pioneer of publicity stunts, press agents, public relations and media coverage. His methods of advertising were mostly unethical, which is why there are so many regulations for today’s advertisements, but they were undeniably effective. He used elephants to plow his yard, strategically placed and worded announcements in newspapers, directly promoted his acts to reporters, etc 4.
Modern advertising would not be what it is today if it wasn’t for Barnum. We use a lot of the same tactics as him, just without the severe deception or circus elephants. That would be pretty cool, though. The elephants, not the lying.
If throughout this article you thought “Sounds a lot like ‘The Greatest Showman,’” you would be correct. The movie is based on P.T. Barnum and the “Greatest Show on Earth.” It’s not very accurate, but it sure is entertaining.