Barnum WallCategory: Ad House Gallery
The Barnum Wall
Barnum is remembered as a huckster, a snake oil salesman, a symbol of hype. Instead, he should be remembered as an incredibly successful — and honest — businessperson. He was a self-made millionaire. And when bad investments and duplicity wiped him out he remade his fortune.
He said that every dollar spent in advertising came back ten times. He didn’t just pour money into advertising, either. Barnum’s techniques were incredibly sophisticated and grounded in solid marketing principles. He demonstrated an intuitive sense of what works, and continued to innovate and experiment throughout his long career. He was so well-respected that in his day any marketing innovation was called a Barnumism.
Barnum understood the value of advertising better than anyone before. He also recognized the strength of publicity, which can be defined as unpaid promotions through the press and word of mouth.
It’s almost inconceivable that one person could be so ahead of his time. Barnum conceived, tested and refined many of the techniques that form the basis of modern advertising. Many of them seem commonplace and obvious now, but they weren’t in the 19t h century. For example, Barnum was employing entire teams of advertisers to promote his circuses and was light years ahead of other 19th century advertisers. While they were satisfied to just print their name and products or services offered, Barnum was experimenting with the content of his ads to generate higher response. He had many rules and achievements, including:
Write in the active tense, not the passive. “See the circus at 7 PM!” vs. “The circus will be at 7 PM.” He also experimented with boldfaces, bullets, subhead and short sentences to break up the copy.
He created news value in his headlines. To promote the 160 year-old Joice Heth, the ad said she was “The Greatest Natural and National Curiosity in the World.” He would use phrases like “At last.”
Use celebrity endorsements to add credibility. Incidentally, while Barnum was writing to leading figures asking for their testimonials, other advertisers, including Thomas Edison promoting his phonograph, were running unauthorized celebrity endorsements. It’s ironic that others were the duplicitous ones, given Barnum’s slick reputation.
Give a deadline. Note in the ad at the right how Barnum said the Fejee Mermaid would be here for one week more. In reality, it would be exhibited as long as there was a paying crowd.
Use dramatic visuals. Barnum showed a roaring hippo, not just a hippo standing there.
Media placement. Barnum wanted the top 1/3 of a page. In 1879, his printers spent $3,000 and three months making a poster that covered the entire side of a building. Own the media any way you can.
Barnum’s relentless quest to find techniques that would generate response from his target market really is truly impressive. And his strategies, from the smallest trick to the grandest ideas, form major parts of many of the laws and principles of advertising that we follow today.
See our featured pieces:
Barnum knew the extraordinary appeal of celebrity endorsements and creating the “self” as a brand.