Feature

History of advertising: No 164: PT Barnum

PT Barnum wasn't just one of the greatest showmen who ever lived.

History of advertising: No 164: PT Barnum

He has also been hailed as one of the world’s best-ever copywriters with an instinctive grasp of the power of advertising. 

In doing so, he pioneered techniques many would argue are just as relevant today.

The man who dubbed his Barnum & Bailey circus "the greatest show on earth" in the 1870s knew how to unlock the selling power of words, creating such wonder and curiosity among people that they fought to get into his shows.

There is no better example of the effectiveness of his copywriting than his 1850 campaign promoting Jenny Lind, a Swedish singer then unknown in the US. So successful was it that more than 30,000 cheering fans – who had never heard Lind sing a note – greeted her ship when it arrived in New York.

Barnum had enormous self-confidence, believing he was successful because he was more innovative and dynamic than his rivals.

He wrote: "If my ‘puffing’ was more persistent, my advertising more audacious, my posters more glaring, my pictures more exaggerated, my flags more patriotic and my transparencies more brilliant than they would have been under the management of my neighbours, it was not because I had less scruple than they but more energy, far more ingenuity and a better foundation for such promises."

Barnum perpetually focused on his customers. The saying attributed to him that "there’s a sucker born every minute" is a myth. However, he did remark that "the public is wiser than many imagine". 

He had an unswerving belief in persistent advertising but also understood that one of the best forms of it was word of mouth. He was a master of the headline-grabbing PR stunt and once said: "Without promotion, something terrible happens: nothing!"


Things you need to know

  • Born in Connecticut in 1810, Barnum got his first taste of salesmanship by selling lottery tickets aged just 12.
  • In 1882, Barnum brought Jumbo the elephant over from London. His arrival in New York attracted enormous crowds as his name became part of the language.
  • Barnum was a businessman to the end. His last words before his death in 1891 were about his show at Madison Square Garden: "Ask Bailey what the box office was at the Garden last night."