Grotesque and irrelevant, Ringling Bros finally shuts down. Yet its mark on advertising remains indelible.
January 18, 2017
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.
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.
January 16, 2017
When I was in college, I took a course on rhetoric and debate in 20th century America. In it, we looked at numerous famous speeches made by famous people: Lincoln, Jefferson, King, etc. Learning from great persuaders how to fashion a rational and emotional argument would later become useful as a copywriter and presenter. During that semester, no document we studied was more powerful than Martin Luther King’s Letter From a Birmingham Jail.
I am not being glib when I say Letter from a Birmingham Jail is one of the finest pieces of long copy ever written. No question Equal Rights was and is a big idea. I like LFABJ better than King’s more famous “I Have a Dream” speech. Not because of content (both are awesome) but because of circumstances. King was alone in a jail cell when he wrote it.
On this, the anniversary of what would have been MLK’s 87th birthday; I think it a fine thing to reexamine this seminal document. An excerpt follows. The full text is linked below it.
“We have waited for more than 340 years for our constitutional and God given rights. The nations of Asia and Africa are moving with jetlike speed toward gaining political independence, but we still creep at horse and buggy pace toward gaining a cup of coffee at a lunch counter. Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, “Wait.” But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six year old daughter why she can’t go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five year old son who is asking: “Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?”; when you take a cross county drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you; when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading “white” and “colored”; when your first name becomes “nigger,” your middle name becomes “boy” (however old you are) and your last name becomes “John,” and your wife and mother are never given the respected title “Mrs.”; when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and are plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of “nobodiness”–then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait. There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair. I hope, sirs, you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience. You express a great deal of anxiety over our willingness to break laws. This is certainly a legitimate concern. Since we so diligently urge people to obey the Supreme Court’s decision of 1954 outlawing segregation in the public schools, at first glance it may seem rather paradoxical for us consciously to break laws. One may well ask: “How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?” The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that “an unjust law is no law at all.”
December 29, 2016
Is it just me or did 2016 seem to fall down the stairs like a bag of groceries? Rolling cans, broken bottles and a lot of F bombs. Even Christmas couldn’t save it. In my view, the holidays only added literal and emotional hangovers to an already jittery society. Like kicking a dead horse.
Maybe it was our interminable Presidential election: a bitter race between two people no one really liked, barely won by a nincompoop. The whole thing was a shit show, democracy at its nadir.
Red vs Blue. Cop vs Citizen. Black vs White. The election was but a symptom of a country in turmoil. The European Union fared no better. Britain was torn away from Europe like a scab. A wound that won’t heal soon, as refugees flood into struggling countries, running away from places that are even worse.
Our world has never felt more dangerous and divided than it did in 2016. Here and abroad, animosities festered and boiled over. “Planes, Trains and Automobiles” felt less like a classic movie than a means to obliterate people.
Despite all, I am and always will be an optimist. I believe in renewal and recovery; I have seen it happen every day. It’s always darkest before the dawn and though winter has most definitely come the cold, clear dawn of January might be just what we all need.
If what you need in the new year is glass way full copywriting, content creation or creative leadership look me up: https://steffanwork.wordpress.com/