In Pioneers of Promotion, writer Joe Dobrow introduces us to a colorful, charismatic, and largely unknown group of marketing trailblazers – the “Mad Men” of the 19th Century. Dobrow turns back the clock to the Gilded Age, when the railroad was just opening up the West, Buffalo Bill was better known than the President of the United States, posters and parades heralded the arrival of the Greatest Show on Earth, a country of 67 million people could host a World’s Fair that attracted 27 million visitors, and the development of a consumer culture paved the way for branded products that quickly became household names. Without a playbook, without any broadcast technology to reach the masses, without any efficient means for disseminating information and images, this little-known group of men somehow developed the masterful marketing techniques we still employ today.
Gilded Age America was a very different place. Or was it?
Here in modern day America, we have come to think of the efforts surrounding big sporting events as the apotheosis of promotion; the modern political campaign as the birthplace of spin; the Hollywood publicist as the consummate sculptor of larger-than-life personae; the 1960s as the golden age of Madison Avenue; and the propaganda techniques of George Creel during World War I, or of Ivy Lee and Edward Bernays during the 1920s, as the headwaters of the public relations industry.
But the reality is that the advertising, PR and promotion we know today have even deeper roots.
Among the earliest practitioners were a small group of incredibly clever press agents, promoters and publicists including Major Moses P. Handy of the World’s Columbian Exposition; Major John M. Burke of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show; and R.F. “Tody” Hamilton of the Barnum & Bailey Circus. Their remarkably sophisticated efforts in the art and artifice of image-making produced some of the most successful events and most famous celebrities of all time.
Using moxie, charm, persuasion, psychology, telegraphy, brilliant insight, iconic imagery, a little alcohol, and most importantly the power of the written word, they gave birth to the marketing industry and launched a series of campaigns that today, a century and a quarter later and finally dusted off for the world to see, stand out as brilliant strategic plans, the clear forerunners of modern integrated marketing communications.