April Fools’ Special – Legends of PR: Phineas Taylor (P.T.) Barnum

March 31, 2009


April 1 being a day of tomfoolery, the first ever in a series titled “Legends of PR” will pay homage to the undisputed supreme showman and master of hoaxes, dog shows, poultry contests, publishing, theater, lotteries, museums (freak shows), circuses and straight up hustling for most of the 1800’s.

P.T. Barnum was a crafty, divisive, and exceedingly motivated man fueling his success and providing several books worth of yarns and biographical information. Read them if you want his life story. In honor of the day however, the focus will be on his epic and most historical hoaxes mixed with some provocative quotes and PR lessons. 

One of Barnum’s first great feats of fraud included the presentation of a woman nearing 80 as the 160 year old former personal nurse to America’s first president and the original G-Dubya. It was Barnum’s only attraction, held in a theater/saloon, yet he promoted it with every type of media available (lots of dead trees) and drew crowds of paying onlookers.  She died close to a year later and the man sold tickets to her autopsy! 

Another P.T. prank was the much hyped “Feejee Mermaid.” Phineas bought newspaper ads and printed pamphlets with pictures of striking, bare-breasted mermaids. The demand raged harder when he hired a “Naturalist” to vouch for the authenticity and it was set to be presented at Concert Hall on Broadway in New York city.

The “Feejee Mermaid” later landed in Barnum’s museum continuing to draw spectators. Ultimately, the aquatic attraction turned out to be the torso from a monkey carcass painstakenly attached to the lower extremeties of a large fish inspiring this quote from a Charleston Courier correspondent:

“…we shall never again discourse, even in poesy, of mermaid beauty, nor woo a mermaid even in our dreams — for the Feejee lady is the very incarnation of ugliness.”

The hoax of the Cardiff Giant may be the best one of all. Basically, a cigar maker named George Hull hired a sculpture to carve and artifically age what appeared to be a giant fossilized human. He buried the giant on his brother’s farm and dug it up a year later, unveiling it with great fanfare ultimately leading Barnum to try and purchase it. The farmer relented so Barnum had his own giant built and presented it with even more fanfare than the original Cardiff Giant saying his was the real one. The Hull’s and their business partner filed suit but Barnum argued he was only presenting a hoax of a hoax and was cleared.

P.T. Barnum had many famous quotes, one of which WASN”T, “There’s a sucker born every minute.” Below are examples chosen for their relevance to PR or just because they’re the musings of a magnanimous showman.

“Without promotion something terrible happens… Nothing!”

“More persons, on the whole, are humbugged by believing in nothing, than by believing too much.”

“Whatever you do, do it with all your might. Work at it, early and late, in season and out of season, not leaving a stone unturned, and never deferring for a single hour that which can be done just as well now.”

“Never attempt to catch a whale with a minnow.”

“You know, I had rather be laughed at than not to be noticed at all…”

“Money, is in some respects life’s fire, it is a very excellent servant, but a terrible master.”

Phineas Taylor Barnum also served in the Connecticut Legislature and is attributed with the following statement during a debate on the 13th Amendment to abolish slavery, “A human soul is not to be trifled with. It may inhabit the body of a Chinaman, a Turk, an Arab or a Hotentot – it is still an immortal spirit!”

Arguably a moral or immoral man, Mr. Barnum wasn’t above fabrication for the sake of promotion. Times being what they were in the mid-1800’s (no twitter!?), people enjoyed the spectacles and were willing to fork over a couple bucks to see a 25-inch man or a three-legged boy to escape the monotony.

Modern etiquette forces us to be less deceitful and it is infinitely harder to get people’s attention now than it was in Barnum’s time, but there are lessons to be learned from this tireless hypemaker.

  • Never stop reinventing yourself, there’s always something else you can do well.
  • Be a labrador with a pitbull mentality. Allow people to embrace you but don’t relent until you get what you want. 
  • If the ape-man isn’t working this week, try the armless wonder or the bearded lady.
  •  If the media disagrees with you or is critical, it doesn’t mean their promotion can’t help you, it just means you have to react strategically.
  •  Persistance and audience engagement are the key to PR.

Phineas Taylor Barnum, you are the original “Legend of PR” as annointed, April 1, 2009.

Posted by: Nick