The Balloon Boy Revives PR’s History

Richard Feene meet P.T. Barnum.

The Balloon Boy family — the flying, tornado-hunting, child-endangering Heenes — appeared today on a number of TV morning shows, folowing yesterday’s bizarre, riveting and suddenly suspicious flying circus. The whole boy-in-the-balloon drama just may have been a publicity stunt orchestrated by 6-year-old Falcon Heene’s father, Richard.

Publicity stunt? See P.T. Barnum, the eponymous brand name of the Barnum & Bailey circus. Barnum with his museum of freaks, his “feejee Mermaid,” bearded lady, Tom Thumb and other “curiosities” that enthralled mid-nineteenth century America. Barnum with his quotable quotes: “There’s a sucker born every minute.”

What Barnum knew and what his creative descendant, Richard Heene demonstrated, is  deliciously dirty little secret: People will pay to be suckered — especially when there’s a photo op in the newspaper or CNN, “The Today Show” and “Larry King.”

Fool me once, shame on me? Not really. Fool me once and I’m all yours. You had me at “sucker.”

In the textbooks used to teach public relations, Barnum is generally credited  as the founder of PR — the industry’s archetype. He’s the guy who figured out  how to use free publicity to fill his circus tent. If he paraded one of his elephants through a flower bed in the middle of a midwestern town, the newspapers — with their new-fangled invention, the camera — would come running to scoop the story.

It was business genius. First you sucker the press. Daguerre’s invention — the photographic process — was still in its infancy when Barnum plied his trade. A front-page story about Barnum’s circus was great marketing strategy — and the cherry on top was the photo of the elephant and the grinning rube town mayor.

Why pay to run an ad when the picture was worth a thousand words and lured a hundred suckers to the circus that very evening? It  was free advertising — the era’s world wide web. Free! Brilliant! Why buy a cow when the milk is free?

Not only may Barnum have invented public relations — he may have invented the free web.

And isn’t America the Land of the Free? Didn’t Nobel Prize-winning economist Milton Friedman, that apostle of free market capitalism, insist that the single most important value of political society was, in his phrase, being “free to choose?”  The gospel of free market capitalism isn’t an expression of American exceptionalism. Friedman shopped it successfully around the world — to Chile, China and elsewhere.

Not that Friedman is in the same circus as Barnum and Feene. Even an anti-capitalist like Noam Chomsky might well hesitate to proffer such a wild comparison. All these men have adored the spotlight. But Friedman was a scholar, not a hoaxer.

Dad of the Year Feeney has Barnum in his blood. Yesterday’s OMG I-can’t-look live TV news shots of the airborn weather balloon that was said to have little Falcon along as an accidental passenger: the spectacle would  have made Barnum proud.

Are we not a spectacular nation? We certainly are a nation of spectacles. It’s in our natinal DNA. We’ve always loved tall tales and the men who retailed them. Our fussy, Marxist European critics — Guy DeBord comes to mind  — have made careers ranting against the poisonous nexus of advertising and consumerism that is definitiely American. We are to blame. And how humiliating it must have been for DeBord to see literary France debauched by the illiterate American suckers with their Disneylands and Madison Avenues and Hollywoods.

We Americans love a bargain, and no bargain’s better than a free one. Never mind that the fussbudget Friedman warned us that there’s no free lunch. We know differently. Facebook, Twitter — the web itself — is not only free; it’s adamantly, fervently, passionately free.

Richard Feene gets it. That’s why one of his first phone calls was to a TV news station. His Barnum brain told him that TV news stations have helicopters — those whirlybird elephants — and that a helicopter tracking the boy-in-the-balloon would make spectacular news. It might cost a few thousand dollars an hour to loft that helicopter. But the publicity was both free and priceless.

Six-year-old Falcon Feene: The face that launched a thousand helicopters — well, maybe just a couple of helicopters, but millions of Unique Views on the web.  As Barnum knew how to play the newspaper press, Feene knows how to work the visual media. After all, the Feenes already had a history with TV. The family of risk-takers had been featured on “Wife Swap.”

As I write this, there’s no proof that Balloon Boy was a hoax. It’s just that television history, American history and the long shadow of P.T. Barnum offer up a pretty strong circumstantial case.

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