If you haven’t heard of PT Barnum ‘The Greatest Showman’ over the last few months where have you been? Since the hit musical showcasing PT Barnum’s epic rise to stardom graced the big screen in December 2017, for many around the world he has now become a household name not least for his ability to promote celebrated hoaxes and carry off unimaginable publicity stunts that enthralled thousands.
Regarded by many as one of the greatest marketers of all time due to his innovative and impressive ideas, he understood promotion in a way few did in the 1800’s and was clearly ahead of his time in the way he went about inspiring and exciting people. One of the main strategies Barnum used to generate interest in his shows, which in turn increased ticket sales (his main objective), was to impress the press and get them on his side. He understood this was a powerful way to share his story and gave him a voice and the ability to change people’s perceptions, which is why when Emily Roebling needed help in 1884 to change public opinion about the safety of the Brooklyn Bridge, a project she had overseen being built, PT Barnum was her first port of call.
Emily Roebling’s project was originally started by her father-in-law John Augustus Roebling, a German-born immigrant whose reputation as a designer of suspension bridges grew after his success at bridging the Niagara Gorge at Niagara Falls. This engineering triumph then led to plans being approved for work to construct a suspension bridge over the east river between Manhattan and Brooklyn. Sadly, before construction began in 1869, John died of tetanus and his son Washington A. Roebling continued his work as chief engineer.
The building of the Brooklyn Bridge was extremely dangerous; the workers had to excavate the riverbed in boxes called caissons, which were pinned to the riverbed by granite blocks and pressurised by air keeping the water and debris out whilst allowing the workers to breathe. However, it also dissolved a dangerous amount of gas into their bloodstream that quickly released when resurfacing causing ‘the bends’, which led to excruciating joint pains, paralysis, convulsions and even death. More than 100 workers suffered from ‘the bends’ including Washington Roebling, who remained partially paralyzed for the rest of his life.
Emily, Washington’s wife stepped in to oversee and complete the work upon his accident as he was forced to watch with a telescope from his window – which was a very bold move for Emily in an era dominated by men. On the 24th May 1883, the Brooklyn Bridge opened, connecting New York and Brooklyn but not long after, rumours went around that the bridge was structurally unsafe, and a week after if opened a stampede broke out causing 12 people to be trampled to death.
Whether the rumours were started because Emily was a woman we don’t know for certain, but it spurred on a determined Emily to prove that the bridge was safe – after all Emily had studied mathematics, bridge logistics/specifications, cable construction and material strength, as well as having spent 11 years assisting her husband in the bridge construction.
Emily knew she needed something out of the ordinary to change the publics minds and silence the rumours, and so with the help of the greatest showman, PT Barnum they created a monumental marketing campaign – a huge publicity stunt to take place on the bridge that would go down in history. They staged a magnificent parade including 21 elephants and 17 camels to walk across the bridge to demonstrate that if a heavy herd of animals and hundreds of people can safely cross the bridge at one time, it could certainly withstand the day-to-day use it was built for. The stunt worked and was greeted by a roar of applause, and the questions of stability were forever silenced.
To this day, the Brooklyn Bridge is standing strong and is among the most recognisable works of architecture in New York City, if not the world as well as being one of New York’s ‘must see’ tourist attractions. It’s still very much in use, and according to the New York City Department of Transportation; over 4,000 pedestrians and 3,100 bicyclists cross the elevated boardwalk of the Brooklyn Bridge each day and more than 120,000 vehicles use the bridge’s roadway.
Emily Roebling’s story with the help of Barnum’s Circus Parade, proved how a well-thought-out marketing campaign can change people’s perceptions by acknowledging the perceived issues and demonstrating they are not as first believed. By daring to be different and grabbing the public’s attention in such an unorthodox way with a method that could not be argued against, it meant rumours were quashed and the success of the Brooklyn Bridge became an attention-grabbing headline in the press for all the right reasons.