Modern advertising and the traveling medicine show

Effective advertising consists, at its most basic level, of two components:

1) The entertainment
2) the message.

Take a look at any nationally-televised advertisement (online or TV) and you’ll see that it includes some kind of entertainment (i.e.: a story, jingle, or some combination of entertainment factors) and then hits you with the message the advertiser wants you to listen to (i.e.: buy our stuff). That’s a very simplistic way to look at it, but it’s essentially true. Advertising during the Superbowl is some of the most expensive television real estate available to sponsors. They spend millions to make a fun, entertaining commercial and spend that much more placing the ad.

No one knew this better than the peddlers of the traveling medicine shows. From the 1850s through the 1940s, traveling medicine shows drew hundreds who stood (there were rarely seats) spellbound at the performer’s skills, sometimes for hours. The performing peddler would do some magic, tell jokes, show off his ventriloquism skills, or any number of acts, then launch into a lengthy spiel about the health benefits of the tonic or herbal elixir he was selling.

I recently spent four days working with a medicine show performer and historian named Dan Barth. Dan’s show has been traveling around the country for 40 years. In a half-hour performance, Dan tells you the history of the medicine show, entertains you with magic and comedy and an 80-year-old ventriloquist dummy named Max.

At the end of the show, he offers the public a look at some genuine artifacts from the heyday of these shows, including his wagon; an 1880s model now confined to a trailer but still in remarkably good condition. The medicine show was the precursor of commercials of all kinds. Every 8 minutes or so, we are exposed to “modern medicine shows” in the form of television commercials.

National advertising campaigns depend on this age-old structure of entertainment and message, but smaller companies, advertising locally, seem to have forgotten about this all-important method. Instead, a local television commercial focuses on features offered by the product or service, throws out a price and often includes negative information.

Instead of just blanketing the region with flat ads, put some of that money into making a better commercial that includes some entertainment value related to your product. Give the ad more appeal and it will reach more people without having to be run more often.

• Tell an entertaining story that sets up a problem.
• Provide a solution (Product/Service)
• Say how to get it and what it costs.
• Don’t try for credibility in an ad.

Click to watch the full story on WDTN-TV2’s Living Dayton with Gery L. Deer!