P.T. Barnum was the master at taking advantage of a situation. Some people believe he was a liar and a huckster, while others believed he was a genius and a trailblazer. But, one thing is certain, he was a pioneer in advertising and public relations. He understood the value of publicity, good or bad.
Barnum knew how to take advantage of situations to get a desired result. Is that unethical? He falsified situations to generate interest, but he also offered certain legitimacy. He told the truth often enough that he was hard not to believe. For every FeeJee mermaid he presented, he followed up with a Jenny Lynch.
When his endeavors were questioned, he stood behind them. Take the case of Josephine Cloufuilla, Barnum’s first bearded lady. Barnum was taken to court about the legitimacy of her beard. He won the case and counter-sued; though it was speculated later that he staged the court cases to generate interest in his show.
For all of his attractions, P.T. Barnum only ever admitted to four hoaxes; Joyce Heath, George Washington’s alleged former nurse, the FeeJee mermaid, the Grand Buffalo Hunt, and Tom Thumb’s Baby.
Barnum is often remembered for the controversy he contributed to advertising, leaving his positive contributions overlooked. His actions laid the foundation for the ethics used in today’s society.
In hindsight, we see Barnum’s tactics as unethical. But, when advertising and public relations were in its infancy he had no rules, he made the rules.