by Anna Olaguer

Some people say he was a fraud but some would say was a genius.

Phineas T. Barnum, played by the multi-talented actor Hugh Jackman in Michael Gracey’s The Greatest Showman, is an ambitious man with a million dreams who created a buzz with his orchestra of freak show. He was portrayed in the movie as a maestro who conducted the theatrical acts in his infamous circus, an open window that lead him to be at the top of his game. His clever way of using publicity to feed his hunger for fame and acknowledgment for something real has made it possible for him to land the title of being the mastermind behind “The Greatest Show on Earth.”

Unlike in the movie where P.T. Barnum was seen to be singing with the performers in his circus, the real P.T. Barnum was not a performer but was the brilliant mind behind the blockbuster circus show. His play on feeding the public with their demand of something weird and different was effective. Who is P.T. Barnum and what is his contribution to how we practice media and communication today?

Young Barnum on his road to the limelight

Phineas Barnum did not come from a rich family to help him in making a name out of his achievements. In fact, according to Richard Brody’s article about the Greatest Showman published in the New Yorker, Barnum came from a poor family and had to drop out of school after his father’s death and learn how to earn a living for his family. But this did not stop him from pursuing his dreams of having a better life. With a head for business, a year after he stopped his education, he was able to run his own grocery store built on his grandfather’s property. From then, he knew the tactics and strategies needed to run a business and even invested on lottery ticket offices. For a man his age who did not have the privilege to finish his studies, Barnum was quite successful.

Barnum also excelled in writing according to The Barnum Museum—a website about the life and works of P.T. Barnum. He made use of this skill so that by the age of twenty-one, he operated his own newspaper publication. Being a publicist and an editor has shed light to Barnum’s knowledge of the power of publicity. His fascination on the wonders of publicity grew to the extent that he put his being jailed because of libel suit at an advantage by continuing to write for his newspaper while held captive behind bars. This audacious stunt of writing even with prison guards watchful eyes started his popularity.

PT Barnum’s interest in the theater started when he moved to New York from Connecticut with his wife and children. In an article about Barnum’s biography on Encyclopaedia Britannica, it was written there that Barnum’s very first act in becoming the greatest showman was when he presented Joice Heth, an elderly enslaved African woman, to be 161 years old who raised and nursed George Washington. Driven by his desire for wealth and fame, he continued pursuing his business in the theater by purchasing a building and transforming it into his own museum. He played around the public’s interest for the unusual and the bizarre by showcasing a carnival of live freaks like General Tom Thumb, the little person who rides the horse in the movie. Barnum became the most famous person in America because of outrageous stunts that got popular world figures such as Queen Elizabeth II to talking about him.

P.T. Barnum and General Tom Thumb

How exactly did PT Barnum gain this wide publicity?

Barnum: The pioneer of publicity methods

The Greatest Showman wasn’t all about singing, theatrical moves, accepting your identity, or the journey of a man from rags to riches; it was also about public relations. Barnum’s museum had tons of audiences for every show despite the controversies it faced because he was a clever man who knew what cards to lay to get the public interested in his shows. Phineas Barnum was a pioneer of publicity-induced methods—the founder of Public  Relations.

Publicity-induced methods, commonly termed as publicity stunts, are ways to get the public’s attention on the message you are trying to convey. One of the stunts that Barnum orchestrated are pseudo-events of media events. According to Morgan Berk’s article on the Influence of P.T. Barnum published in the University of Central Missouri, pseudo-events are events that generate noise in the media to attract the attention of the audience. Barnum once used elephants to plow his front yard just to get the attention of commuters on the train to go to New York where his circus is. According to him as cited in an article by Ashley Foster, “Newspaper reporters came from far and near, and wrote glowing accounts of the elephantine performance. The six acres were plowed over at least sixty times before I thought the advertisement sufficiently circulated.” Today, we use different pseudo-events such as press conferences, TV appearances, and establishing articles in order to create buzz about either an upcoming campaign or an upcoming event.

The elephant bridge stunt

Barnum knew how to get attention but he also knew how to sell his product by speaking with the media—another publicity stunt he has amplified in the practice of PR today. In the same article by Ashely Foster, Barnum personally introduced General Tom Thumb to New York editors to get them to write about the singing and dancing talent of a little person. In return, he also became a press agent himself who oversaw that the acts that he is promoting is made aware to the public. PR practitioners today talk to the media whenever they want something to be released about the product they handle and make sure that the right message is conveyed.

PT Barnum did not just want the crowd to know what’s about to happen with the previous publicity stunts he pulled that were mentioned above. He also wanted the people to remember it. And how did he make people remember? He made a tarpaulin about his show and posted it everywhere—from walls, buildings, carriages to milk cartons that people see every day. Today, we use billboards, flyers, brochures, vehicle advertisements, and the like to promote our product.

Tarpaulins of the performers outside the Barnum Museum as shown in the movie. Image source:

Since Barnum sees the importance of media in his publicity, he always made sure that whatever he releases to the public is newsworthy. Ashley Foster explained in her article on how P.T. Barnum gave short names to his performers to attract customers easier and to fit their names in the headline of the newspapers before. He thoroughly analyzed how wide his publicity could reach with every strategy he came up with. The greatest publicity coverage he gained was of an article about the marriage his two performers who are extreme opposites; one being super thin and the other being super fat that she weighed ten times as what her husband weighs. When coming up with campaigns, we always think about fresh ideas that will stand out from a vast colorful market. PT Barnum has insinuated this kind of think with him advertising not the normal but the extraordinary stories that we weren’t expecting.

The greatest show

How we do PR today is similar to how Phineas T. Barnum did it before. Yes, technology allowed us to upscale and make tangible ideas that were impossible during Barnum’s time but the idea behind the publicity stunts—to attract attention, to sell, to make the customer remember, and to always bring something new is the influence from PT Barnum’s being the greatest showman. By understanding the power that one holds with the right publicity and the belief in one’s product, Barum left his legacy as the greatest showman who indeed mastered the noblest art of making others happy.