P.T. Barnum — Public Relations

by Jenna Young & Allie Klaubert

P.T. Barnum worked in the business of sales from an early age. As the oldest of 5 children, his early jobs ranged from working as a grocery clerk to selling lottery tickets.

His first venture into media was editing his own newspaper, Herald of Freedom. Barnum used the Herald to fight attempts to unify church and state. At one point, he was thrown into jail for libel. However, he used his incarceration as an event to increase readership for his paper.

Barnum first entered show business with a woman named Joice Heth. Claiming that Heth was the 161-year-old nurse of “Little George” Washington, Barnum travelled the South for several years charging admission to see Heth along with several other small side-shows. Upon Heth’s death, Barnum employed his show business tactics and even charged admission to her autopsy.

Barnum’s next break in show business was as the curator of the American Museum. As the curator, Barnum turned an ordinary hat into the hat of Ulysses S. Grant and claimed that an average tree trunk was the trunk of a tree that Jesus’ disciples sat under. Over 38 million people lined up to pay the .25 cent admission charge to view Barnum’s ordinary-turned-extra-ordinary objects.

The American Museum is also an example of today’s advertising. The building was its own advertisement. Covered in lights, banners and flags, it is said to be similar to Times Square.

One of Barnum’s most integral marketing campaigns focused on Swedish opera singer, Jenny Lind. Barnum brought Lind over from Sweden without hearing a single note that she sung. Before her arrival, he launched a massive marketing campaign that drove 30,000 people to greet her ship upon her arrival.

At the age of 61, Barnum began to work on his most acclaimed accomplishment, the Barnum and Bailey Circus. Originally dubbed the “Great Traveling World’s Fair,” the show was the first three-ring circus. Essentially the American Muesum on wheels, Barnum’s show featured a menagerie of animals, caravan, hippodrome and circus.

In 1891, Barnum died at the height of his career. However, his circus went on to be the most well known circus of the day and is still preforming today as the Ringling Brothers circus.

Barnum’s successes were integral to the field of public relations.

He understood the power of promotion. By announcing his circus’s arrival before he came to town and simply branding ordinary objects as must see attractions. He once said, “Without promotion something terrible happens – nothing!”

Barnum also showcased the importance of marketing. He provides an excellent example of how marketing can turn an ordinary event into something that everyone wants to attend.

Lastly, Barnum truly understood his publics. He understood that anyone will pay .25 cents to see something if it is branded in a way that makes it impossible to pass up. Whether they wanted to stand in amazement or point out how ridiculous, he still gained the revenue.

He created environments that enticed people to buy what he was selling and attend his shows. His innovative techniques drew in the crowds and impacted today’s view of advertising, marketing and public relations.


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