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If American literature, as Ernest Hemingway said, starts with Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn, then American advertising starts with P.T. Barnum's masterful humbugs. Barnum knew how to turn the famous Dr. Samuel Johnson's definition of advertising -- "promise, large promise" -- into words and images that still capture attention.

Any idiot can attract attention (witness Benetton, Calvin Klein, now Gucci), but it is a talent to hold an audience still. Often what quiets them is a promise. "I will show you something you have never seen before," says the carnival barker. "Here, just have a look," says the advertisement. When we don't like this holding action, we call it hype. In the 19th century it was called humbug.

Creating humbug was Barnum's life's work. He spun stories around Joce Heath (George Washington's supposed nurse), the Feejee Mermaid, General Tom Thumb, Eng and Chang (the Siamese twins), Zip -- The What Is It, the Wild Men of Borneo, and Jo-Jo, the Dog-Faced Boy. On almost a philosophical level, Barnum knew that you cannot anticipate, let alone understand, an event without a context, a frame, a story ... hype.

He also knew that in the hands of a master, humbug becomes more than claptrap spun around a product. When it worked, what you sold was both the product and the humbug, the steak and the sizzle.

Barnum's most outrageous humbug, however, was himself. He was not just a self-made man (at one time the second most wealthy one living in Manhattan), but he was the image of a man made by himself. Long before Colonel Sanders, Lee Iacocca and Ed McMahon, the pitchman persona of Barnum was known throughout the land.

Have a look at this herald (as it was known in the circus trade) announcing the arrival of the circus. "Look for it," we are told. "It is coming." The vertical text on either side of Barnum makes clear that he refers to himself: I Am Coming. Barnum was no fool; he knew what this kind of language was hyping. These words were drawn from the apocalyptic tradition of evangelical Christianity. He also knew exactly what he was implying when he called his circus "The Greatest Show on Earth," or contended that it is a "crowning success." That Barnum is casting himself as the Redeemer, that he is analogizing his show to the Greatest Show in Heaven, is no happenstance. True to his reputation, Barnum is generating humbug by the ton. His variety is just an inch short of sacrilege.

His critics knew well what he was up to. An editorial writer for The Nation even blasted Barnum for his effrontery: "He is the personification of a certain kind of humbug which, funny as it often appears, eats out the heart of religion."

There is a close relationship between Christianity and advertising. Some famous admen even studied for the ministry. Creative and business talents like Claude Hopkins, F. W. Ayer, Artemas Ward, James Webb Young, Theodore MacManus and especially Bruce Barton (who went on to write The Man Nobody Knows, which cast Jesus as an account exec going about "my Father's business") were acutely aware of the importance of promise, of salvation, of sincerity and of all the techniques of persuasion necessary to keep the congregation paying attention.

What separates Barnum from the evangelical Elmer Gantrys is that he so gleefully attaches himself to this tradition. He knew why people came to his Church, as it were, and he never disappointed them. He knew the difference between attracting and duping. Of his business strategy he said, "I don't believe in duping the public, but I do believe in first attracting and then pleasing them." He even called his audience his "congregation," as if to make sure they got the point.

Two weeks before the circus came rolling into town, Barnum would send his advertising coach down the rails. Plastered all around this converted passenger car was his gaudy portrait, surrounded by exotic animals and circus acts. Townspeople were invited to tour the coach, to see its rich appointments and marvel at its luxury. A crowd was drawn, word of mouth started, hype spun.

Not only did the car advertise Barnum's "Grand Touring Museum, Menagerie, Caravan and Circus" (in that order), it also housed his advertising cadre of bill posters, plasterers, press agents and circus flacks, ready for saturation advertising. The coach itself was loaded with heralds, posters, banners, couriers and newspaper cuts. The expense of spreading this word was a third of all the circus expenses -- some $100,000 a year in the 1870s.

After President Grant returned home from a world tour, he was dining with the great impresario. "General, since your trip you must be the best-known man on the globe," Barnum commented. "By no means," the President replied. "You beat me sky-high; for wherever I went -- in China, Japan, the Indies, etcetera -- the constant inquiry was, 'Do you know Barnum?' "

Although this herald promises that Barnum would be appearing at Ottawa (near Chicago), such would not be the case. Barnum almost never traveled with the circus. Most of the time he was home in Bridgeport, Conn., doing what he loved