Monday, February 16, 2004

History of Hype, cont. 

A common error in histories of modern publicity is to trace its beginnings to the early part of the 20th Century. We know, of course, this isn't remotely true. Agencies started at that time but promotion and publicity are as old as humans. This is why I like to highlight examples of promotion that pre-date the 20th Century and to show how anything done in the 20th Century had clear predecessors.

The following is a passage about a publicist from "The Devil in the White City," a marvelous history of Chicago's World Columbian Exposition of 1893 combined with a lurid tale of a psychopath. The publicist was a fellow named Sol Bloom, a young man from San Francisco who was sent to Chicago after showing his talent for hyping theater in California. Bloom took over all the concessions at the Chicago Exposition and ran them brilliantly with one stunt after the next to increase crowds. But, while the fair was still under construction, he proved valuable as well as a hypster. In fact, he was a model of what modern entertainment publicists would become. Here is the passage:

Bloom's knack for promotion caught the attention of other fair officials, who came to him for help in raising the exposition's overall profile. At one point he was called upon to help make reporters understand how truly immense the Manufactures and Liberal Arts Building would be. So far the exposition's publicity office had given the press a detailed list of monumental but dreary statistics. "I could tell they weren't in the least interested in the number of acres or tons of steel," Bloom wrote, "So I said, "Look at it this way -- it's going to be big enough to hold the entire standing army of Russia.'"

Bloom had no idea whether Russia even had a standing army, let along how many soldiers it might include and how many square feet they would cover. Nevertheless the fact became gospel throughout America. Readers of Rand, McNally's exposition guidebooks eventually found themselves thrilling to the vision of millions of fur-hatted men squeezed onto the building's thirty-two are floor.

Bloom felt no remorse.

Has our business changed all that much?


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