Lessons in Hype from P.T. Barnum

Hyperbole, spin, and image. You think hucksters are bad now? Learn how P.T. Barnum created a media circus that turned a relatively unknown opera singer into America’s greatest star.

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We’ve become so familiar with media campaigns full of hype, spin, and image, we tend to think of them as modern inventions. But you can find people running media campaigns well back into the 1800s. P.T. Barnum, founder of the Barnum and Bailey Circus, launched one of America’s biggest media campaigns in 1850.

He made a fortune using the media to draw the public to his American Museum. But in 1850, Barnum outdid himself when he arranged and promoted a concert tour for the Swedish soprano Jenny Lind.

In his promotion, he presented her impending tour as not only an artistic, but also a moral spectacle. “A visit from such a woman who regards her artistic powers as a gift from Heaven and who helps the afflicted and distressed will be a blessing to America.”

Barnum’s campaign was so successful that when Lind sailed into New York Harbor, over 30,000 people lined the wharf and crowded the decks on nearby ships just to see Lind arrive. As she rode off to her hotel, she was nearly buried beneath the flowers admirers threw through her carriage window. At her hotel, the street was choked with another 20,000 waiting to catch a glimpse of the singer.

But almost no one in the crowd, much less in all of America, had heard Jenny Lind sing. Although she had been a sensation in Europe, where she had sung in major opera houses, few had even heard her name before Barnum made her a national media sensation. Yet when she set foot on American soil, she was already famous for being well known, and vice versa.

Newspapers stoked the “Lind Mania” fire, printing any story they could find about the singer. When they exhausted the promotional materials from Barnum, they produced their own Lind stories, even if they had to make them up.

Jenny Lind cigars.
Jenny Lind Cigars

Adding to the frenzy, businesses began selling Jenny Lind coats, gloves, baby cribs, cigars, and sausages.

As Lind’s fame grew, Barnum hit on the idea of auctioning the first concert tickets, and charging the public 25 cents to watch the bidding. After the winning bid of $250, the rest of the tickets were swiftly sold out.

It was easy enough to sell tickets in cities like New York, Boston, and Philadelphia. But Barnum had planned a tour that would take Lind into the cultural hinterlands, Natchez, Louisville, and Pittsburgh.

Barnum knew there was little demand in those cities for opera singing. But he wasn’t selling Jenny Lind on musical talent alone. He was presenting her as an exhibit of charm, modesty, and sincerity, packaged with an exceptional voice. Many audience members were more interested in her character than her singing. They were particularly attracted by reports of her generous giving.

Always eager to satirize Americans and their vulgarity, London’s Punch magazine mocked Lind’s exuberant reception in the states.
Always eager to satirize Americans and their vulgarity, London’s Punch magazine mocked Lind’s exuberant reception in the states.

At her first concert, for example, she captivated the New York audience with her pure tone and vocal control. But then Barnum stepped on stage to announce that Lind was donating her share of the evening’s proceeds — $10,000 — to charities and asylums in the city. Well, that did it. The theater exploded with applause all over again. Men wept with emotion at her generosity. Journalists broke out their choicest superlatives to rave about the enchanting singer.

The Post’s editor, on September 21, 1850, wrote that he’d heard she’d been wonderful in the concert. He wrote far more in describing her as “a very noble and generous woman.”

Jenny Lind kept her promise to donate her earnings that night. She had already given vast amounts to establish free schools in Sweden and Norway, and she contributed to American charities throughout her tour.

So ultimately, Barnum wasn’t taking a great risk with the Lind tour. He knew the American public and its interests. And he knew that Americans liked thinking about themselves as lovers of art, respectability, and generosity. When they applauded Jenny Lind, they were, in a way, applauding themselves. Playing to the American ideal is still an essential part of a successful media campaign.

Post cover girl Jenny Lind, from the April 20, 1850 edition.
Post cover girl Jenny Lind, from the April 20, 1850 edition.

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  1. This is an extremely fascinating feature Jeff. I can ONLY imagine what Barnum would have done if he were of comparable age in the present day.

    His “accomplishments” then (without any of the technology we have today) were enough to make Americans and the U.S. look like a circus side show of vulgarity as depicted in the above political-type cartoon in Punch magazine. I’d say it still packs quite a ‘punch’ of embarrassment even now, and unfortunately is more timely than ever.


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