Vitale, Joe. There's A Customer Born Every Minute: P.T. Barnum's Secrets to Business Success.
New York: AMACOM, 1998.
Pp. xviii + 217. Bibliography, index. Paper, 6" x 9".
$17.95. ISBN 0-8144-7953-7.

The following review appeared 27 February 1998 on the Mark Twain Forum.

Copyright © 1998 Mark Twain Forum.
This review may not be published or redistributed in any medium without permission.

Reviewed by:

Barbara Schmidt <>
Tarleton State University
Stephenville, TX

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On 2 March 1867, Mark Twain penned a letter to the editors of the Alta California newspaper: "Now that Barnum is running for Congress, anything connected with him is imbued with a new interest. Therefore I went to his Museum yesterday, along with the other children. There is little or nothing in the place worth seeing, and yet how it draws!" (reprinted in Mark Twain's Travels With Mr. Brown, p. 116).

In Joe Vitale's latest book, There's A Customer Born Every Minute: P.T. Barnum's Secrets to Business Success, Vitale attempts to unravel Phineas T. Barnum's nineteenth century business formulas that transformed "nothing" into businesses that "draw." Vitale theorizes that Barnum's methods of genius are translatable and transferable to twentieth century businesses. His book offers the reader convincing evidence to prove his theory.

Vitale also sets out to dispel the myth that Barnum originated the phrase, "There's a sucker born every minute." And historical evidence bears him out. Vitale emphasizes that Barnum did not swindle the public, but merely provided them with good-natured jokes and entertainments that he called "humbugs," which kept his customers coming back for more.

There's A Customer Born Every Minute offers the reader little information relating to Mark Twain and his relationship with P.T. Barnum. And it does not pretend to. Neither does it masquerade as a source that examines Barnum's influence on Twain's writing. Twain's name is mentioned on only fourteen pages throughout the book. The majority of Twain references are only one or two sentences in length; only five are indexed--albeit one entry is indexed incorrectly. Unfortunately, Vitale misses some golden opportunities to discuss Twain's reaction to some of Barnum's most well-known publicity stunts. Vitale does refer in a single sentence to Twain's Coy Coggia comet newspaper story of 1874, which included Barnum in the story line; but Vitale misses a chance to expound upon Twain's use of Barnum's famous Cardiff Giant hoax as the source of Twain's sketch, "A Ghost Story."

Vitale's book has as its main purpose the examination of the promotional and business techniques employed by P.T. Barnum throughout his lifetime--techniques that transformed Barnum into one of the nineteenth century's most colorful and renown businessmen; Barnum--the name still rings with familiarity. There's A Customer Born Every Minute belongs to the motivational and self-help genre of books; it is designed to inspire today's business owners to implement Barnum's techniques for sure-fire success.

Vitale's research into the life of P.T. Barnum can be traced back through the archives of the Mark Twain Forum when Vitale first polled subscribers in 1995 for any insights into the Twain and Barnum relationship. Vitale, an independent marketing specialist, proudly informed the Forum, "there's a little of both Barnum and Twain in me" (18 May 1995). Since 1995, Vitale has done his homework on P.T. Barnum and his book contains a lengthy bibliography of primary and secondary sources as well as chapter endnotes. Vitale also gives a personal account of his own visit to Barnum's grave. Vitale has now molded his knowledge of Barnum into a sales training program called "Project Phineas," which expounds upon ten marketing principles he has identified and defined as "Rings of Power" that made P.T. Barnum an American legend.

Vitale not only demonstrates how Barnum developed and implemented his business strategies, he illustrates how today's successful entrepreneurs are utilizing the same strategies. He challenges his readers to imagine how the same techniques could be implemented in their own lines of business.

Among the ten Barnum strategies or "Rings of Power" are those devoted to attention-getting. Vitale confesses, "I sometimes dress as P.T. Barnum and give speeches on his business principles while pretending to be the great showman" (p. 43). Harry Houdini and Evel Knievel are other famous personalities who are identified as masters of attention-getting techniques first employed by Barnum. Knievel has even written a blurb for the back of Vitale's book praising its merits.

Linking publicity to news events is another Barnum technique that receives colorful attention in Vitale's volume. Not only is Donald Trump identified as a modern-day Barnum and master of negotiations, but also an adept master at whipping Trump deals into major news events. In another prime example of "Barnumism," Vitale relates how techniques learned from his "Project Phineas" sales training program were instrumental in luring former President George Bush to a potentially nondescript Houston parachute symposium in February 1997. The symposium ended up with world-wide news coverage via the CNN television network.

According to Vitale, modern day Barnums are also public speakers as well as writers. Barnum continually updated and reissued his own autobiography. And in one of the longer passages in this book that relates to Mark Twain, Vitale discusses a Twain-Barnum collaboration for a book--a book that would make use of "queer letters" that Barnum received from people pitching money-making or money-borrowing schemes. For some yet-to-be-discovered reason, Twain never wrote the book.

Vitale's book provides a realm of Barnum biographical facts and trivia in a random format. Among the most fitting bits of Barnum trivia--the word Phineas translates into "mouth of brass" in Hebrew. There's A Customer Born Every Minute lightly touches upon almost every facet of Barnum's career: from Jenny Lind to Jumbo the Elephant; from the FeJee Mermaid to the failed Jerome Clock Company; from the little General Tom Thumb to the Cardiff Giant; free buffalo hunts in Hoboken, museums that burned, his mansion called Iranistan, Queen Victoria--they're all in the book.

The Barnum secrets of success range from discovering the requirements of fun to the importance of personal faith; from networking to negotiating; from writing effective advertising copy to establishing people contact networks. There's A Customer Born Every Minute includes a complete reprint of Barnum's famous speech, "The Art of Money Getting"--a speech that noted newspaperman Horace Greeley once characterized as worth "a hundred dollar greenback" to a beginner in business (p. 165).

If Twain researchers are seeking more insight into P.T. Barnum, the man who sometimes appeared to be both a source of fascination and irritation for Mark Twain, There's A Customer Born Every Minute fits that niche and provides bibliographical references to more extensive studies of Barnum's life.

If Twain researchers are seeking an in-depth review of the Twain and Barnum association and their influences upon one another, they'll pass this one by. In fact, one might ask how a book with Twain cast in such a minuscule role received a review from the Mark Twain Forum. The answer might be that there really is a lot of P.T. Barnum in Joe Vitale.