Lessons in Fame from P.T. Barnum's Autobiography

From Lapham’s Quarterly, lessons on fame and advertising from The Life of P. T. Barnum, which was published in 1855.

“Put on the appearance of business, and generally the reality will follow.” And what follows then? Profit. How is this miracle achieved? First, through false superlatives and inflated rhetoric, e.g., “The world-famous _______ is the greatest one ever seen.” Then, through repetition: if one asserts a claim often enough, the claim (true or untrue) achieves, as we say now, traction. But the process requires faith, “to teach you that after many days it [your investment] shall surely return, bringing a hundred- or a thousandfold to him who appreciates the advantages of ‘printer’s ink’ properly applied.” The making of money in this formulation of the new gospel is a sign of blessedness, and instead of prayer to effect a particular outcome, we have advertising.

In a world in which every truth is fungible, advertising begins to substitute for the news. One of Barnum’s brilliant, almost genius-level aperçus, was that you could create news through advertising, and the advertising itself becomes newsworthy. If you advertise forcefully, the advertised object, even if perfectly vacant and without qualities (think: Paris Hilton), becomes a topic of conversation. Truth value is always trumped by hype, and hype in turn is fueled by controversy. Any news is good news. Barnum discovered that if your show generates angry letters to the editor, so much the better: people will be compelled to see the spectacle for themselves “to determine whether or not they had been deceived.”

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