Circus S(p)in: P.T. Barnum

After 146 years, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus performed its last show on Sunday, May 21. True to its promotional expertise, the circus streamed its final performance live on Facebook and YouTube. The circus dubbed “The Greatest Show on Earth” succumbed to declining attendance, high operating costs, and prolonged battles with animal rights groups.

Well before Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus came under fire for alleged animal rights abuses—owner Feld Entertainment retired its touring elephants in May 2016—company founders violated the most fundamental of human rights. Both Ringling Brothers and Phineas Taylor “P.T.” Barnum, who operated separate circuses years prior to merging, have historical ties to slavery.

Starting in 1899, the Ringling Brothers exhibited George and Willie Muse, six- and nine-year old Black albino brothers. They were promoted as Eko and Iko, so-called “ambassadors from Mars.” It is unknown whether the circus kidnapped them or they were sold for a short-term arrangement, but their mother successfully negotiated their release in 1927. Sadly, the sons returned to the circus the following year to support their impoverished family. They wouldn’t retire until 1965.

In 1835, P.T. Barnum purchased Joice Heth, an elderly, blind, slave, to exhibit her as the 161-year-old former nurse of U.S. President George Washington. He displayed her for seven months across the Northeastern United States. When ticket sales dropped off, Barnum planted the even more preposterous news story that Heth was not alive, but controlled by ventriloquist. He continued the denigrating spectacle post-mortem. Barnum charged for admission to a public autopsy to verify her age. The doctor of course concluded that Heth was likely no older than 80 at death. Remarkably, Barnum convinced a news editor that the real Heth remained alive elsewhere, a claim he perpetuated in serialized articles for several months.

In the sanitized version of U.S. history, the circus transitioned seamlessly from human “freak shows” to exotic zoos, and then high-flying acrobatics. But a comprehensive narrative necessitates sociocultural context. Historians have rightfully explored the greater meaning of the circus in the American historical imagination and contemporary popular culture.

—Cheryl Ann Lambert, Ph.D.

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Bad Publicity Is Bad Publicity: Top Five

The saying “there is no such thing as bad publicity” should die in the hottest of fires. Real publicists know that all good publicity is good publicity and all bad publicity is bad publicity.

Case in point: Three days before reality-star Erica Long (Gabrielle Union) is set to marry comedian-turned-actor Andre Allen (Chris Rock) in the movie “Top Five,” Andre is arrested for drunk and disorderly conduct. His arrest comes midway through a promotional tour for his first dramatic film role and ends four years of sobriety.

The publicity that follows is decidedly bad for Andre and Erica.

Erica’s publicist Benny Barnes (Romany Malco), justifiably concerned about the potential impact on her public image, delivers a scathing ultimatum to get Andre in check:

“Here’s what you are going to do. You are going to attend your bachelor party. And then you’re going to climb up on that jet and you, my man, are going to get married. And then, and only then, I will make sure that your little incident plays into the press like it was part of the show. I will tell the media, the cops, your parole officer, that we all thought the alcohol was fake. Everybody knows that these shows aren’t real. But if you decide to do something drastic, you’re on your own. Your own.”

This speech is rare for a publicist-character. Most of the time, they dole out pithy words of wisdom in between staging glitzy media events for their celebrity-clients. Think Samantha Jones (Kim Cattrall) in Sex and the City the television show, and the film and sequel or Ashley Albright (Lindsey Lohan) in Just My Luck). Fictional publicists lead glamorous lives, embodying the work hard play hard lifestyle.

According to Noreen Heron and Kate Hughes, real-life publicists research industry trends to identify those of relevance to their clients. They look for new communication channels to convey messages, particularly those with public  appeal. Publicists interact regularly with media professionals, sometimes serving as client intermediaries. They are superb writers, capable multi-taskers, and exceptional problem-solvers.

Hollywood publicists at the top of their game might helm million-dollar movie campaigns. They schedule media tours and press junkets, and viewers see both events in “Top Five.” The other place where fictional and real-world publicists intersect? They are on-call 24/7 for their clients.

What else would you expect from someone tasked with getting good publicity?

—Cheryl Ann Lambert, Ph.D.