How is Content Marketing Like 19th Century Medicine Shows?

How Visuals Drive our News

For What Ails You

Content marketing is an extremely effective and popular mode of marketing in the modern era. Audiences have, it seems, grown tired of overt salesmanship; simply telling someone that they need your product is often read as heavy-handed and unappealing. 

But this desire for more than just a pitch did not originate with video or even film. Let’s take a look at one of the most interesting (and devious) early versions of content marketing: the medicine show of the nineteenth century.

What was a traveling medicine show?

The model of the traveling medicine show went a little something like this: a man would ride into a western town or settlement in a large, colorful wagon with signs proclaiming the brilliance of his “medical practice” and the powerful “cures” he carried. Once he’d set up his wagon and laid out his wares, the man would set up a series of shows.

These shows involved numerous forms of entertainment and illusions, often including trick-shooting, feats of strength, comedy, and more. Tickets to the show were free. And some of the attendees were often compatriots of the “doctor”.  These men and women would proclaim his “medicines” to be miracles. They might perform a stunt or skit to convince the rest of the crowd of the abilities of the “doctor.”  

Throughout the show, the jokes, stunts, and spectacles always referred, directly or indirectly, back to the “cure”. But as the show approached its end, the sales pitch went into high gear. Tonics and elixirs were sold as “cure-alls”, phrased as a “Cure for What Ails You” with no limit to its abilities. And when we say ‘no limit,’ we mean none. Some cure-alls could supposedly cure your back pain, lung disease, and improve your eyesight with a single swig.

Even the more specific “medicines” promised astonishing results: “Drink the contents of this bottle, and your broken leg will be whole”. And it only cost two months’ wages!  

In reality, many of these tonics contained something that would make them very appealing, and go a long way towards customer retention: opium, morphine, alcohol, and cocaine were common additives.

Why didn’t people run these charlatans out of town?

Actually, they often did; most medicine shows tended to disappear after six weeks or less. The “doctor” wore out his welcome and customers had time to realize they’d been swindled.

As we examine the medicine show’s content marketing, we should probably ask a better question.

Why did people tolerate medicine shows at all?

It wasn’t entirely unknown that there were roadside charlatans with a song-and-dance that sold little more than expensive lies.

The answer, as hinted above, is that the shows provided value. It’s safe to guess that a good number of medicine show attendees saw them purely as shows, with no real concern for the product at all. And yet, a lot of those same people ended up buying what the “doctor” was selling.

People in the 1800’s yearned for comfort, for frivolity and hope. Their lives were frequently short, wracked by then-untreatable illnesses, and isolated from families and hometowns back east. The “doctor” was keenly aware of these circumstances and of the desires of his audience.

The plan for many who watched a medicine show was simple. Go in hopes of hearing some good jokes or seeing someone shoot a hole through a hat in the air. Then tune out (or depart entirely) for the “medicine” pitch.  

But with science only so far advanced, it was hard to disbelieve the eyes. It was even harder with the “doctor” having planted friends in the audience. Sure, the trick-shooter made the shot, but he came with the “doctor,” so that wasn’t wildly unexpected. The man in the crowd, though, who missed once, then made the shot after drinking the tonic… that was often convincing.

Was this good content marketing? Absolutely, in the short-term sense.

Was it morally good content marketing?  We likely won’t offend anyone by saying absolutely not, in any sense.

Content marketing, like any marketing, is not an excuse to lie, or to shed your ethical obligation to your customers.

How much of a villain, then, was the snake oil salesman (the term coined during the era and still in frequent use today)?Enough that his trade was ruled illegal; the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 criminalized the sale of fraudulent medicine.  Within a few years of this legislation, the medicine show was gone.

So why are we talking about medicine shows for modern content marketing?

There is, however, a lot we can learn from the strategy of the medicine shows (without the deception) for content marketing today.

The idea that direct sales overtures can be off-putting is not a new one, no matter how often it’s considered a Millennial concept.  

By the same token, the give-and-ask marketing style of the medicine show proves that modern marketers shouldn’t claim that content marketing is a fad or risk; it worked over a hundred years ago, consistently, often working even on people who knew that the “doctor” probably wasn’t being honest.

Consider what this means for the power of content marketing.

If it worked for medicine shows that didn’t even have a real product, what can it do for your organization?

If you provide the kind of value that people want—your version of “the show”, whether it’s in video, infographic, or another format—and you link it to your credible, high-quality brand, the possibilities are innumerable.

The “doctor” at a medicine show could hope to reach maybe forty or fifty people, depending on the size of the town.  Too many people would’ve hastened his exodus from that town, as the likelihood of his deception being exposed went up with every person he tried to con.

As a modern marketer, you can reach literally millions of people, and your product has nothing to hide from exposure—in fact, it only has more to gain.

Thinking of historical examples of content marketing like the medicine shows reminds us that very little is truly “new,” and that even when an idea seems inextricably linked to its era, one can almost always find earlier examples.  Take the good parts of the medicine show as an example—the attention to audience needs, the entertaining value, and the less direct route to salesmanship.

Just make sure that your product does what it says it’ll do. 

Today, you might not get run out of town, but there are a lot more “townsfolk” watching.  And they’re a lot better at spotting snake oil.