P.T. Barnum — The George Washington of Advertising

by Matthew Hallock , The Voice

Phineas T. Barnum has a sullied reputation today. He’s perhaps best known for the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus, which just announced it is closing. He actually began the circus venture when he was in his 60s. Historically, the circus conjures up images of fast talkers with loose morals, of social outcasts who have found a home in the community of the traveling show. There are the barkers who overpromise, the fortune-tellers and games of chance where the only sure bet is that you’ll lose your money.

In this vein, Barnum is remembered as a huckster, a snake oil salesman, a symbol of hype. (Phineas means “mouth of brass” in Hebrew.) 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 originated, 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 19th century. For example, in the 1870s department store magnate John Wanamaker of Philadelphia became the first store owner to take out a full-page newspaper ad and to hire a full-time copy chief. At the same time, Barnum was employing entire teams of advertisers to promote his circuses. In addition, Barnum 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.
  • Offer guarantees
  • 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.


Here's a video an intern at The Voice made on Tom Thumb. 

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.