P. T. Barnum once said, “Without promotion, something terrible happens: Nothing!”
Barnum knew promotion. He used the social media of his day, the word-of-mouth of a thousand excited kids triggered by a couple advance men and a few handbills, to build anticipation for events featuring the “Fiji mermaid,” General Tom Thumb and Jumbo the Elephant. Our young democracy ate it up.
Today, we’re quick to laugh at the “gullibility” of P. T. Barnum’s customers, rubes suckered in by “obvious” hoaxes like the Cardiff Giant. But history records few cases of customers complaining or demanding their money back. Why? Because the ostensible product – a quick peek at something exotic – represented only a small fraction of the value Barnum delivered. People didn’t demand their money back because, by the time they filed past the case or cage holding Barnum’s latest “find,” they’d already received their money’s worth.
Barnum knew ballyhoo drove traffic. But he also knew something else: ballyhoo added value. The promotion of an event was a big part of the product.
Now, through the twentieth century (what we mistakenly call “the golden age of advertising”), ballyhoo was cast as low class and cheap and all but squeezed out of existence. Thanks to J. Walter Thompson, Edward L. Bernays and all their kin, marketing and public relations became one-way and distinctly “un-fun;” an abattoir that attempted to march consumers cattle-like up a ramp toward buyer’s remorse. We got sucker punched so many times by the bait and switch of “scientific marketing” that we began to recoil, protect ourselves in a cloak of irony.
After a century, we almost forgot the joy and the value of ballyhoo. With the passing of “Crazy Eddie,” we professionals almost forgot how to do it. And so, when social media popped on the scene, with its viral videos, its trending topics, its comments, likes and shares, we barely knew what to make of it.
P. T. Barnum would have known what to make of it.