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A Maverick Full Of Hoaxes

Updated: Jul 11, 2023

A maverick. Someone who is hatke, who thinks in an out-of-the-box or unorthodox manner. It is usually these same mavericks who change the way the world thinks, behaves and perceives. Such mavericks exist in almost every field of knowledge from films and advertising to manufacturing.

Today, I am going to talk about one such interesting maverick who changed the way people looked at advertising. Many practices that my generation has grown up watching can be traced back to this man- Phineas Taylor Barnum(1810-1891).

Throughout his lifetime, he wore many hats of an American showman, politician, businessman, author, philanthropist, & also of a publisher, but he has was most popularly known for his celebrated hoaxes and for founding the Barnum & Bailey Circus, in addition to his museum.

A historian once said, “Barnum’s great discovery was not how easy it was to deceive the public, but rather, how much the public enjoyed being deceived.” The core element of all his advertising techniques was the “illusion of realism”, which we will delve into further with some examples.

To spread word about his museum, he used to get newspapers to write about it, buy billboard space, hang outsized banners, stick posters and signs to horse- wagons, etc. These are all practices we see brands using quite often today in a modern context. The fruit to all this labour was that he was able to get 400,000 visitors a year, that too in the mid-1800s.

Besides these techniques, he was also very popular for his clever hoaxes like Feejee Mermaid, General Tom Thumb, “161-year old” Heth, etc. To understand his hoaxes better, let’s take up 161-year old Heth who was a, well 161-year old lady named Heth who had apparent proof of her being 161 and further also claimed that she was the nurse maid to George Washington. People used to come from all over to listen to her lullaby which claimed to have sung to little George Washington.

On her demise, it was found that she was only around 80 years old when she passed away and so it was also not possible for her to be George Washington’s nurse maid either. But somehow, Barnum managed to get a somewhat identical looking old lady and people still came to see her. Such was the power in Barnum’s techniques that even if he was caught, he would be able to carry on with his hoax.

Another simple hoax he had in his museum was a sign which said “This Way to the Egress”. Those who didn’t know what egress meant, followed the sign thinking they were about to witness something exotic only to find out in a while that they were led to the exit of the museum and would have to repay to enter the museum.

Now, I’m sure you must be wondering that there have to have been some kind of controversies that might have risen from such hoaxes and you wouldn’t be wrong to think so. For a matter of fact, some of the controversies regarding the museum were started by Barnum himself, in an attempt to advertise his museum further. Doesn’t this ring a bell to what happens during elections in today’s time?

In addition to this, an article in the CT Post stated, “The showman would hand-select press agents, who would give newsmen behind-the-scenes access to the just-arrived circus while smothering their editors with press releases.”

Coming to a point I had mentioned earlier in this article, Barnum has clearly used the concept of “illusion of realism” in all his advertising techniques as well as hoaxes. He made something unusual seem so real that he got people curious. Personally, I feel that the fact that he got people curious is the source of most of his advertising successes. Even in 21st century advertising, what makes you go from watching a chips packet in an advertisement on YouTube to buying it when you are in a grocery store? For a lot of us, it is the curiosity factor, atleast initially before brand loyalty kicks in.

Another point to mention here is his ability to make something clearly a hoax seem real and using that to advertise his product, the museum. In today’s content, isn’t that what the doctors in Colgate ads are? We all know they are actors and not real doctors/dentists but we still feel more comfortable when they mention that these doctors recommend this product.

Therefore, in this way, we can see how P.T.Barnum changed how advertising would be approached and started a lot of practices that would go on to become commonly and widely used techniques when advertising a product, even with the advent of newer technologies. Some have even said that he was “the first great advertising genius and the greatest publicity exploiter the world has ever known.”

Thus, we can say that he is a maverick, and a very interesting maverick at that.


“I don’t believe in duping the public but I believe in first attracting and then pleasing them.”

– P.T.Barnum

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Lifestyle | Self-growth

Storyteller at my core & writer at my front, I'm here to share stories with you that help you see the magic in the world.💛


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