How Barnum used bricks to build an audience.

P.T. Barnum was a showman, that’s for sure . . . but sometimes his best shows were the stunts he pulled to get audiences to see his shows.

He was an expert at the unexpected.  He knew the best way to build a crowd was to stand out from the crowd, and sometimes just being plain weird worked . . . especially when you are selling weird.

One of Barnum’s first ‘productions’ was The American Museum – which was “a collection of curiosities” located right here in NYC.

Here’s what he did.

One day a beggar approached Barnum in the street.  Instead of giving him money, Barnum decided to employ him.  Taking him back to the museum, he gave the man five bricks and told him to make a slow circuit of several blocks.  At certain points he was to lay down a brick on the sidewalk, always keeping one brick in hand.  On the return journey he was to replace each brick on the street with the one he held.  Meanwhile he was to remain serious of countenance and to answer no questions.  Once back at the museum, he was to enter, walk around inside, then leave through the back door and make the same bricklaying circuit again.

On the man’s first walk through the streets, several hundred people watched his mysterious movements.  By his fourth circuit, onlookers swarmed around him, debating what he was doing.  Every time he entered the museum he was followed by people who bought tickets to keep watching him.  Many of them were distracted by the museum’s collections, and stayed inside.

By the end of first day, the brick man had drawn over a thousand people into the museum.

A few days later the police ordered him to cease and desist from his walks – the crowds were blocking traffic.

This story, which was taken from this great read (which I recommend for anyone wanted to produce a show or lead an organization . . . or an army, for that matter), is a great reminder of the following marketing musts:

  • Sometimes it doesn’t take a buck to get attention, it just takes a brick.
  • To be effective, a stunt must be similar to the product you are marketing. How did Barnum get an audience to see a collection of curiosities?  He got them curious, of course.
  • When you get in trouble, it often means you’re doing something right.

If only there were a Barnum born every minute, Broadway marketing wouldn’t be so boring.

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Ken created one of the first Broadway podcasts, recording over 250 episodes over 7 years. It features interviews with A-listers in the theater about how they “made it”, including 2 Pulitzer Prize Winners, 7 Academy Award Winners and 76 Tony Award winners. Notable guests include Pasek & Paul, Kenny Leon, Lynn Ahrens and more.