Barnum Effect: A Slick Tactic

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Mr Barnum took risks. That’s why, he’s remembered widely.

It’s sexy to talk about agile changes, shiny new things, or things that make you feel barmy. But let’s chill for a moment and talk about what doesn’t change, but still works. Amazon boss Jeff Bezos once said, “I almost never get the question: ‘What’s not going to change in the next 10 years?’—because you can build a business strategy around the things that are stable in time.”

Advertising legend Bill Bernbach said, “It took millions of years for man’s instincts to develop. It will take millions more for them to even vary. It’s fashionable to talk about changing man. A communicator must be concerned with unchanging man, with his obsessive drive to survive, to be admired, to succeed, to love, to take care of his own.”

From Mr Bernbach who lived before the internet boom to one of the richest men alive in the world Mr Bezos, the notion of unchanging man’s behavior stays true: we’re still surviving, loving admirations, striving to succeed, valuing products or services that are better, cheaper, and faster.

The Barnum Effect

PT Barnum (

The Barnum Effect, also called the Forer Effect, is a psychological phenomenon when someone believes that personality descriptions apply specifically to them, despite the fact the description is actually filled with information that applies to everyone. Sounds familiar? That’s basically how horoscopes and tarot readings work. People will accept generalities as being directly relevant to them. Like, we can always blame it on the Geminis.

The Barnum Effect got its name from the American showman Phineas Taylor Barnum who lived in the 19th century. Mr Barnum is infamous to be the one who coined the phrase, ‘a sucker is born every minute’ – rooted in his ability to easily persuade consumers and take their money. But, perhaps Prof. Bertram Forer’s study in the late 1940s best illustrates the phenomenon. He conducted a personality test through a questionnaire to his students. The survey’s written in such a way to make them believe that each of their unique set of answers would be analyzed to give them an individual personality assessment. Instead, Prof. Forer gave each student a paragraph full of identical generalities that could be true for nearly anyone, such as, ‘You have a need for other people to like and admire you, and yet you tend to be critical of yourself.’

Surprisingly, 87% of students rated their personality assessment as being very accurate – giving it a score of 4 or 5 (scale of 1-5). It demonstrated human gullibility on the bogus positive feedback, assessments, and perceived authority figures.

The Barnum Effect is the “fallacy of personal validation” because consumers love to be flattered. More importantly, they trust compliments as being truthful – even if it’s intended for a broader audience. It’s a persuasion skill that enables us to flatter and assure intended readers. Many readers’ objections are rooted in fear of disapproval, ridicule, making a mistake, or being ripped off. That’s why persuasion isn’t about bullying or manipulation, but reassurance.

But we seem to forget the first case of persuasion is converting clients to choose a better path. Nowadays, we (our bosses?) love to promote, promote, and promote both online and offline but forget to persuade, then consumers choose bad options or, even worse, leave. The essence of persuasion is “I’m selling you a product here, these are the values surrounding the product, and this is why you should buy it.” It may sound simple, but it’s not easy.

The Barnum Effect in Action

The Barnum Effect is everywhere. The use of a “recommended for you,” “who to follow,” or “you might also like” feature on Facebook, Spotify, Twitter, and Netflix gives the illusion of a tailored product. It makes them seemingly ‘understand you in person when the feature is based on broader demographic and behavioural data feeding the algorithm.

One time, Mr Barnum falsely marketed the Circassian Beauties, a phrase used to refer to an idealized image of the women of the Circassian people of the Northern Caucasus, and turned them into a sideshow attraction. The women were portrayed as racial purity and had escaped sexual slavery. They often wore oriental costumes and their teased hair was held in place with beer. Zalumma Agra was Mr Barnum’s first Circassian Beauty. She’s an example of racial purity.

But it’s all made up. None of the women was from the Caucasus, and actual Circassian hairstyles bore no resemblance to Mr Barnum’s fantasy. They’re regular local women with exotic-sounding names, cute peasant costumes, and wild hairdos. 

Americans didn’t know better. Mr Barnum’s bogus stories turned regular women into an interesting attraction, Americans bought them and got entertained. I channelled my inner Barnum by making bogus email stories in replying to scammers. My favourite exchange is one with Mr Anderson Miller. His modus operandi was he offered me a mutual friend’s inheritance who just passed away.

1. Mr Anderson demanded my urgent response (I gave him)

2. Mr Anderson explained his intent (I confirmed that)

3. Mr Anderson told me his comprehensive plan (I replied accordingly)

4. Mr Anderson’s sickened by me and gave up

Key Takeaways

Mr Barnum makes average things compelling, a persuasive communication maestro, and an effective communicator. Do we all have the balls to make our copy not only informative, but also interesting, amusing, and distinctive?

Mr Barnum took risks. That’s why he’s remembered widely. He knows people need things to ease their daily pains. Thus, he came up with weird stories which are more compelling to consumers who are already getting bored and stressed by things in their lives. But are we willing to fight our unorthodox ideas to turn average things unforgettable?

What we can always do as a writer is to “write as you speak.” Meaning, keep it clear and conversational. When necessary, sprinkle it with creative ideas or weird imaginations. Entertain them, as Mr Barnum did. Make consumers trust you so that they’re responsive to your offers. Lure them to get a better option in their lives that’s also beneficial to your businesses. That’s persuasion.

Even scammers ‘love’ the idea of writing like you speak by being responsive to my rubbish emails. Stay away from averageness, and always work hard to make things compelling to your readers and consumers.

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