The Wild Men of Borneo: MarCom Do’s (and Don’ts) Compliments of P.T. Barnum

By Tress Fereday

My sisters recently both described some disobedient kids as the “Wild Men of Borneo.” I asked “are the men of Borneo really that wild?” Neither knew the origin of this strange phrase, and why the people of Borneo were being besmirched. So, I took to Google to find out.

There are several references to the phrase and a movie in the 1940’s. The most interesting is the The Wild Men of Borneo who were two mentally disabled brothers from Ohio. It was told they could perform feats of great strength, so they became part of P.T. Barnum’s freak show exhibition. The two were renamed and given a sensational backstory of being captured on the island of Borneo.

Barnum is notorious for his advertising and promotional acumen, so I decided to find out more to see what Marketing Communications “Do’s” and “Don’ts” could be gained from the man called “The Greatest Showman on Earth.”

DO: Tell a Compelling, Unique Story
Whether it was General Tom Thumb, or the skeleton of the Fejee mermaid (it was actually the combined bones of a monkey and a fish covered with papier-mâché), Barnum knew how to spin a yarn and get attention through his storytelling.

For your product or business, you can think about what makes your product or service unique and different. What is your key differentiator? How do you outpace your competitors? What is your elevator pitch? (The story you can tell in a short elevator ride.)

DON’T: Lie or Perpetrate a Hoax
OK, so Barnum didn’t really have mermaid bones and the world’s oldest woman in his show. The entertainment factor trumped the truth, I guess.

Today, Internet hoaxes and dead celebrity announcements via Twitter are common. A recent survey revealed that 20 percent of companies “misrepresent or lie” about their earnings to inflate stock price. A scary statistic for any investor.

Lies, subterfuge or hoaxes will eventually come to light. They always do.

DO: Try New Things and Innovate.
While in London, Barnum recorded his voice on an Edison recording machine praising his circus shows. This is believed to be the first recorded commercial.

The good news is that when it comes to innovation, businesses today have a wealth of new technologies to deploy in their manufacturing, distribution, staffing, etc. Also, in marketing and sales, they have new and effective channels to leverage in social, mobile and Web strategies.

DON’T: Rely on Tabloid Tactics
Barnum wrote much of the copy for his ads that trumpeted headlines like “Mammoth Fat Infant: Only 3 years old and weighing 196 POUNDS.” It could be argued that he began what became today’s tabloid journalism.

When writing about his career in entertaining the masses he said “If he worthily fulfills his mission and amuses without corrupting, he need never feel that he has lived in vain.”

Did he amuse without corrupting? Unfortunately we can’t ask the “Mammoth Fat Infant” or the “Wild Men of Borneo” their thoughts.

DO: Speak Directly to Your Audience
Barnum had his own newspaper “Barnum’s Advance Courier.” Also, he was a sought-after speaker and lecturer.

Today you can leverage social media to communicate and solicit feedback from your customers. Also, if you are a subject matter expert, you can become a published author and venture on the speaking circuit.

So, these are a few of the best (and not-so-best) practices to learn from Mr. Barnum.

And, in case you were worried, you’ll be happy to know that Justin Bieber is not dead. And, the island of Borneo welcomes tourists.