What can today’s marketers learn from a 19th century American showman? Will Humphrey has some ideas.

The year is 1860. It’s some 147 years before social media is even thought of. Issues of evolution, racial definition and the morality of slavery abound. Darwin’s Origin Of Species has just been published.

Like any good marketer, P.T. Barnum saw an opportunity for his brand. He premiered one of his most famous exhibits, “What Is It?”, claiming that the African-American performer playing What Is It? was a possible missing link between man and beast. He merged supposedly objective scientific findings about evolution with the ongoing debates. By creating a story behind the exhibit, it added to his legend and created headlines throughout the nation.

Now, that was ‘humbug’, as Paul Feldwick notes in his excellent book, The Anatomy of Humbug. Humbug, in Barnum’s definition, is an entertaining hoax that drives fame. That particular story was designed to fuse scientific intrigue with cultural resonance.

Fast forward to 2020, and it’s well established that fame drives effectiveness. However, I’d argue that given the context they now find themselves in, successful brands will increasingly ensure effective activity by borrowing from Barnum’s methods and approaches, going far beyond chasing headlines with a sponsored survey.

Consider the modern media environment; a place where Google is a reputation engine, where falsehoods and half-truths are readily spread around the internet and, worryingly, acted upon. It’s a world where digital attention has been monetised, where half-truths from the US President trumped his factually correct challengers by gaming the internet. In essence, the most interesting stories win out; as research company System1 puts it, “the human mind is a story processor, not a logic processor”.

It’s all too easy to view this wholly negatively. But an understanding of modern communication taking place in a landscape of ‘truthiness’ (where something instinctively feels true, even when it may not be) is a central part of the effective modern communications landscape.

Feldwick’s prescient book talks to how successful brands can use fame-led approaches, suggesting a number of approaches. WARC’s Effective 100 is chock-full of such examples, whether it’s campaigns that use sociability (tapping into or reframing how a particular audience communicates); salience (distinctive communications that elevate brand prominence); spin (telling a story that subverts what people would typically expect) or spectacle (a visually striking display).

By fusing what we know about the modern media landscape with these lenses, it suggests there’s a new means of understanding and unpacking effective communications. As you’ll note from the top 100, effective brands use the full suite of fame-led tactics at their disposal.

Use sociability

By amplifying and socialising new understanding, with a unique twist, BBDO Tokyo and Hiroshima were able to massively grow oyster consumption. Though Hiroshima has been the number one region for oyster consumption for 700 years, local citizens rarely ate them. 99% of locals couldn’t write oyster in Kanji.

Taking a leaf from Barnum’s book, they created a social debate, and answered their own debate by providing workbooks to schools that included the Kanji word for oyster. The campaign generated $2.8m in earned media, and oyster consumption almost doubled. People loved the story and responded to the campaign’s fusion of truth and provenance.

Use salience

Arguably the most traditional use for advertising-led effectiveness is salience; using distinctive communications to elevate the importance of a product or service. Yet, even this is shot through with Barnum’s thinking.

A brilliant example from the top 100 is Tide. An established brand, it wanted to ensure it could grow penetration and awareness of its offering, centred around the thought of the feeling of clean clothes. Saatchi & Saatchi New York felt the best way to do this was to demonstrate how every ad was, in fact, a Tide ad. During every quarter in the Super Bowl, a number of ads became Tide ads. Both wholly distinctive and designed to be played with by a broader audience. Barnum would have approved.

Use stories

But what if your business needs to drive behaviour change and overcome out-of-date attitudes? Well, in the case of Tourism Australia, they used spin to subvert what people expect.

Tourism Australia wanted to drive increased bookings. So, it launched a fake Crocodile Dundee film to make Australia top of mind for high-value US travellers. Fake teaser trailers aired, and the full trailer was released during the Super Bowl, where the big reveal was made. It became the number-one most viewed and shared Super Bowl campaign and led to a 900% increase in organic booking inquiries. This gets ever closer to pure Barnum – fusing cultural beliefs with an entertaining story, even if it was false.

Use spectacle

The final approach is spectacle. Going one step further to create something which sits at the heart of a conversation. Just look at what LadBible, Plastic Oceans Foundation and AMV BBDO created with ‘Trash Isles’. They made a physical island to urge governments to address the plastic crisis affecting our oceans, with eight million tonnes of plastic entering the oceans every year.

They then evolved the campaign, partnering with Change.org to encourage the public to pledge their support, tapping into their digital networks, getting luminaries such as Sir David Attenborough to sign up to become citizens. Over 220,000 people did, and the campaign was widely politically discussed.

Approaches to communications effectiveness have many facets, but as seen by the WARC Effective 100, many of the best directly borrow from Barnum. ‘Truthiness’ can, and should, be used for good. Falsehood need not mean harmful fake news; it can be weaponised and used to create stories that help businesses and brands grow share.

Some 92 years ago, Edward Bernays (the father of modern public relations) wrote the following: “I believe that competition in the future will not be only an advertising competition between individual products or between big associations, but that it will in addition be a competition of propaganda.”

The businessman and advertising man is realising that he must not discard entirely the methods of Barnum in reaching the public.

Barnum-inspired fame is central in driving cut-through and results. It used to be that effective communications PR’ed the advertising. Now, increasingly, effective communications advertises the PR.

This article is taken from the WARC report, Lessons from the Effective 100, an analysis of the world’s top effectiveness campaigns, as ranked by the Effective 100, to uncover shared creative, media and measurement strategies.