Whilst scouring the vast expanses of the information superhighway, I recently came across a very interesting article on a 19th-century advertising war that played out in the countryside of northern Vermont. As a person who’s interested in history, art, entertainment, and advertising, the story was intriguing to me on many levels.
We all know that everyone loves the circus. Children and adults alike have long enjoyed the spectacle of these traveling extravaganzas.
While this type of entertainment continues to draw crowds today, it was during the Victorian Era that the art form basked in its golden age.
Traveling circuses originated in a time before electricity, when society was largely agrarian and rural isolation was widespread. The arrival of a circus was a highly anticipated event – one that country folk would jump at in the hopes of staving off the monotony of life on the farm. They were places to see and be seen.
Victorian circus promoters like the legendary P.T. Barnum had to be savvy marketers if they wanted to fill seats. They had to let potential ticket-buyers know that something amazing was on its way, and that these customers should be first to see it for themselves. The answer was simple, and made sense given the absence of modern forms of communication such as television, radio, or the Web.
During the golden age of the American traveling circus, posters were the main form of advertising and promotion. These beautifully illustrated works of art were large and vibrant, capturing the imagination of anyone who happened upon them – the glitzy Adobe Flash of their day.
Circus owners typically employed roving bands of advertising shock troops who would travel ahead of the wagon train searching for the best places to display the posters. Oftentimes, these advertising agents resorted to purchasing space on the sides of barns and houses from farmers in exchange for tickets.
When competing circuses had overlapping territory, advertising space was in demand. This is where the story gets really interesting – and it’s where the article featured on The Art Newspaper’s Web site picks up.
In 1991, homeowners renovating an old house in northern Vermont were surprised to find layers of circus posters that had been long covered over by exterior siding. Realizing the age and value of the find, the original boards to which the posters were affixed were donated to the Shelburne Museum in Shelburne, Vermont.
There, researchers found layer after layer of posters that multiple waves of competing guerilla marketers had pasted over those of competitors. When one poster went up, another circus’ men would soon come along and put up a new one right over it. And so went the back-and-forth dance of the circus advertising battle.
Now you may be asking yourself, “What does this story mean for today’s marketers?”
If anything, it teaches us a lesson on the power of technology and what is now possible in the information age. The Internet is a game changer. No longer are marketers limited by the physical restrictions of advertising space. No longer is it as easy as it once was to drown out or cover up messages that compete with yours.
Competition will always exist. But nowadays, the playing field is fairer. Everyone has the same chance to let their voice be heard, whether it be a teenage blogger or a Fortune 500 company.
On the Internet, everyone has the same opportunity to share, the same space to disseminate information, and, if done correctly, the same chance to have share of voice. The reality is no different for pharmaceutical companies. They have the same access to what one could consider to be an infinite number of farmhouse walls – all of which can be covered in material of any type designed to reach any number of audiences.
Of course, the Internet is not a farmhouse in Vermont. And we’re not selling glimpses at elephants and bearded ladies. But the lessons of advertising still apply in the same ways they did over a century ago. It’s about knowing your audience and sharing information. It’s about featuring a product and shaping impressions. Only the mediums have changed. And with that change comes the potential for unbridled opportunity.
So take a look at this thought-provoking article and see for yourself where advertising once was. And while you’re at it, take a moment to consider the medium you’re using to view the article and the power it holds for advertising today.
Palio is a full-spectrum global pharmaceutical and consumer advertising, marketing, and communications agency that excels in brand creation and specializes in brand strategy, product launches, global marketing, and digital and integrated media.