Social media never forgets. How YouTube killed the circus

social media never forgets

By Mark Schaefer

For 146 years, there has been a spectacular show traveling from city to city in America. The Ringling Brothers Circus featured clowns, acrobats, and animal acts that thrilled families for generations.

But on May 21, the show will go dark after its last performance.

There are a lot of reasons behind the demise of this American institution. The cost of the complex show was enormous — more than 500 performers and crew, 100 animals to care for and feed; a universe of costumes, props, sound and lights. There is more competition for attention and entertainment dollars than there was than when the troupe started in 1871.

But the core reason behind the decline seems to be … elephants, and YouTube.

Social media never forgets

When I was a child, I always had mixed feelings about seeing the elephants in the circus. They were awe-inspiring and entertaining, but I always wondered … could they possibly be happy being stuffed back into that train car every night? When the circus left town, I quickly forgot about the elephants and returned to my school work, friends, and baseball practice. Everybody did. What could you do? Write a letter?

But 10 years ago, a social media movement started that would not let us forget. A surreptitious video showing heavy-handed tactics against the elephants went viral and fueled an online campaign that dampened enthusiasm for the circus. The owners took steps to clean up their act, but ticket sale went into a decline. When the elephants were finally removed from the show last year, ticket sales plummeted.

I would guess that in this world there are very few people who devote their lives to the rights of circus elephants. But on social media, the voice of a few can be amplified into a thunderous call for action and provide a decade-long drumbeat of embarrassment for the owners of the show.

Throughout history, there have probably always been a certain group of people who could not forget about the elephants, but there has never been a true mechanism for rapid social change until now, until social media.

The catalyst for rapid social change

I’m lucky to be alive at this moment in history. I’ve witnessed more social change in the last 10 years than my grandparents witnessed in a lifetime. There have been countless examples of industries, companies and individuals being brought to justice by a video or even a misplaced tweet. ALS research was transformed by an ice bucket challenge (one of my most-viewed videos!). Heroes have risen from obscurity to become national and international leaders, celebrities, and entertainers. Every one of us has the amazing ability to find our voice and become known.

There is also a sad side to this rapid change. I feel cheated and a little angry that there will be no more traditional circus performances. My parents took me when I was little. I took my kids. But my (future) grandchildren will never get to witness a person who has honed a single skill over a lifetime for one, perfect eight-minute circus performance. They will never see the clowns climbing out of a little car or hold their breath when a person flies through the air on a trapeze swing.

Why couldn’t the circus shift fast enough to use social media to remain relevant, to ignite a new generation of excitement? The circus had survived two world wars, television, and an economic recession, but it couldn’t survive YouTube?

The first lesson of this story is that even a small group can ignite significant and lasting change in our world today

But the second lesson is what happens when you can’t get ahead of the curve and respond fast enough to that change. The circus probably had more resources and promotional fire-power than its adversaries, yet it took them 10 years to work the elephants out of the show.

The circus sells dreams and practically invented the modern field of PR yet couldn’t save itself. If you’re not in a constant state of reaction and reinvention, you’re probably in a state of decline.

The protesters did the right thing. Maybe closing the circus was the right thing. But it’s weird to see this little piece of history die. I guess social media makes us all move on.

Some of the facts for this post came from an excellent profile in the New York Times of the circus and the performers who will lose their jobs after the last performance.

SXSW 2016 3Mark Schaefer is the chief blogger for this site, executive director of Schaefer Marketing Solutions, and the author of several best-selling digital marketing books. He is an acclaimed keynote speaker, college educator, and business consultant.  The Marketing Companion podcast is among the top business podcasts in the world.  Contact Mark to have him speak to your company event or conference soon.

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  • Hey Mark, great observation and love the example. We’re also seeing this play out with United Airlines this week and the changes that is going to force to the practice of bumping passenger. The Canadian government is already introducing legislation to address it! Not to mention the massive punishment levied against United’s shareholders within 24 hours of the occurrence!

    I love this sentence: “But the second lesson is what happens when you can’t get ahead of the curve and respond fast enough to that change.” My only suggestion is to change the word “can’t” to “don’t”. If companies don’t heed the subtle warnings available to them through social media (the consumer brain trust), by the time it escalates, it’s way too late. It’s at that point where the word “can’t” is appropriate.

    In your example, the circus had warnings about the problem for a long time, and failed to act until it became impossible to change. Blackberry and many others felt similar pains for the same exact reasons.

    Yes, it is sad our kids (well, grand-kids) won’t have the thrill of the circus but just think of the thrills they will have through many new experiences yet to be imagined. In time they won’t even understand the concept of clowns driving cars since physical driving won’t even exist!

  • Wonderful commentary Steve. Thanks for this gift today!

  • Thank you, sir! And, as an added thought, you had recently talked about considering AI and how to leverage that within your domain of expertise. Maybe this case is a hint. Currently the AI world (at least within social) is focused on engagement techniques (advertising, chat etc.) and the rest of the business is still in human based “listening” mode. Perhaps the biggest initial impact would be to use advanced AI to help in understanding so these early warnings are better identified and impacts predicted.

  • Jennifer Porter

    Never underestimate the internet’s ability to spread information. I still think they could reinvent themselves, they just need to hire a great digital marketer:-))

  • Ha! True. I would have picked up that phone call!

  • Very good point sir.

  • Jennifer Porter

    Mark Schaefer Saves the Circus! There is a headline!

  • Marshall Kirkpatrick

    So glad for the elephants!

    Also, thankfully there are acrobats and street performers and dancers and more still out there! We should give them money.

  • : )

  • While social media outcry can have very positive outcomes, for example getting the circus to change the way they treated the elephants, it has no accountability. Hence, 500 performers didn’t just lose their jobs, they lost everything — homes, career, income. It’s not like there’s a lot of demand for a trapeze artist or lion tamer, nor are those skills particularly transferable. I see the same problem with phone cameras that record only one point of view, and lead the world to accept that angle as the only truth. For all the good social media does in giving everyone a voice, it does a great deal of irreversible damage because of a lack of ethics and careful thinking about outcomes. I hope this will eventually reinforce the value of the press and journalistic integrity.

  • I could not have said this any better Candyce. A lovely and very true comment. Thank you!

  • I did PR for Ringling one year. It was an amazing experience and before the era of social media. Even then it was pretty easy — and disruptive — to call up the police and say a tiger was on the loose from the circus. That’s sort of thing happened all the time and was well coordinated.

  • Man, that must have been an awesome job!

  • Hi Mark, very interesting read. It just goes to show how powerful social media is, in particular, video because it engages people’s emotions and allows them to experience things as if they were there themselves.

    I appreciate what you’re saying about Circus; I was lucky enough to go to one when I was a kid and I still remember sitting up high on the benches, smelling the sawdust from the Circus ring, laughing at the clowns. But being a passionate supporter of the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust I’m certainly relieved that animals, elephants in particular, will no longer be used simply as entertainment. Their suffering is truly heart-wrenching. I think the Cirque du Soleil does a very good job of carrying on the Circus tradition so long may it last!

  • I’m sorry that 500 people lost their jobs but I’m sure if they put their minds to it they could have found other gainful employment. The animals can’t speak for themselves; what about their suffering? Is it right that we keep these beautiful creatures in tiny pens, behind bars, removed from their natural environment just for our entertainment? I don’t think so.

  • Pingback: 9 Little Stories from a PR Stint with the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus()

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