Grotesque and irrelevant, Ringling Bros finally shuts down. Yet its mark on advertising remains indelible.

January 18, 2017

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Gorgeous yet ugly. The poster says it all.

After almost 150 years, the fabled Ringling Brothers Circus is finally shutting down. I say “finally” because for the life of me I don’t know what took so damn long. This creepy institution was antiquated when I was a boy, before distractions like the Internet and smart phones and social media. I loathed the circus back then, preferring to stay home listening to my Rush albums or watching reruns of the Brady Bunch on the Zenith in our living room. Even before the endless reporting of cruelties under the Big Top (animal and human), I found the circus guilty of the biggest sin of all: being boring as hell.

Then and now, the Circus came off as a Victorian concept: a traveling freak show of creepy clowns, defanged tigers and bearded ladies. While those “attractions” may have appealed to kids in simpler times (say before the Kennedy administration), these days “children of all ages” were no longer willing to look up from their smart phones to watch so much boring and crappy cruelty. Thank God.

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That being said, from an advertising and promotion perspective, we should give the Ringling Brothers and Barnum Bailey their due. The “Greatest Show on Earth!” demonstrated the power of marketing on so many levels, starting with that killer tagline. From teasing the public to creating brand mythology, for better and worse, we in Adland owe these founding fathers a nod, if not a debt of gratitude, for ushering in the era of modern marketing. Selling the circus touched all the bases: social, promotional, experiential, advertising and the graphic arts in general. That much is true. Unfortunately, the wizard behind the curtain always was a monotonous and brutal entity. And the more obvious this became the more the circus suffered.

Ironically, the beginning of the end probably began way back in 1941, with Disney’s classic animated feature, Dumbo. As beautiful as that movie was, it highlighted the gruesome reality of circus life, in some ways like a horror movie. The circus was nothing more than a traveling prison camp. Precious few characters in it were spared the whip, caged living and daily abuse. Even those paying to see the circus were depicted as gaping, sadistic hordes. Deep down I think we all knew that besides a flying elephant everything else about the movie was grimly true.

How Ringling Bros and other such “entertainments” lasted so long defies reason. It also points to some uncomfortable facts about the human condition: that we would place tradition above grotesque.

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