If you had been strolling through Leicester on a crisp winter's day in 1881, you might have spotted a strange sight: an elephant lumbering down the high street harnessed to a giant wheel of cheese.
Not a peckish escapee from the circus but one of Thomas Lipton's infamous stunts to publicise the culinary delights of his shop. Not surprisingly, crowds gathered. Lipton then stuffed his cheeses with gold sovereigns, enticing consumers to buy a slice in the hope of striking it rich.
The cheese sold out in two hours, but the story doesn't end there. Unfortunately for Lipton, lotteries were illegal back then and his antics quickly gained notoriety. Undaunted, Lipton applied his creative approach to exploit a loophole and ran half-hearted ads requesting the coins back - thereby transforming the sovereigns into "loans". Of course, no-one took him up on the request.
Lipton's stunts are more than interesting anecdotes. They are a striking example that the ability to capture public attention to generate sales stretches back further than you might think. As an industry, we tend to ignore our rich heritage and, instead, obsess over the latest technology, cultural fad or Cannes-winning campaign. However, if everyone seeks inspiration in the same place, the outcome is similar ideas and executions. Better to look back further for stimulation.
The Victorians are a good place to start as there are remarkable similarities between our eras. The Victorians were concerned by the pace of change - just as we are today. In 1848, Karl Marx famously claimed: "All that is solid melts into air." Whatever the shocks of the digital revolution, the Industrial Revolution was equally groundbreaking. These challenges inspired a host of innovative marketers.
Lipton's escapades weren't limited to elephants. Less controversially, he hired a team of skinny men to march to his shop bearing placards saying: "Going to Lipton's." Once they had arrived, he sent out a troop of fat men with signs reading: "Coming from Lipton's." Modern experiential agencies could learn a lot from the simple power of his marketing spectacles.
Not all Lipton's escapades were so successful, though. When he printed promotional leaflets that looked like pound notes, the subtleties were lost on many. An illiterate labourer was sentenced to 20 days' hard labour after innocently trying to spend one on a night in a boarding house. At least Paddy Power hasn't been responsible for any customer jailings.
Media mix, Victorian-style
Thomas Barratt, the marketer behind Pears soap, rivalled Lipton for his bravado. His most infamous escapade harnessed owned media: the wages of his factory workers. Since defacing the Queen's image was illegal, he imported a quarter-of-a-million centimes - still legal tender in the 1860s - and stamped them with an exhortation to buy Pears soap. The coins, and his ads, quickly spread through society as staff spent the money. He gained millions of free impressions without spending a penny - or centime - on paid media.
Barratt's paid ads were more honest than some of his contemporaries'. Without an Advertising Standards Authority equivalent, rogue ads were rife. AK Balsam's messages, for example, were neither legal, honest nor true. One of its ads advised testing the product by driving a nail deep into the skull of a ram or chicken. A small application of balsam would, it was claimed, "directly stop the blood and cure the wound in eight or nine minutes and the creature will eat as before". The number of chickens that died in the testing of this ad is not known.
If everyone seeks inspiration in the same place, the outcome is similar ideas. Better to look back further
Media owners were equally inventive. Lord Northcliffe, the owner of the Daily Mail, showed admirable bravery in prioritising long-term growth. Despite being picky about the advertisers he allowed in his newspaper, he gave free space away to rival press barons. He then used his competitors' presence as a demonstration of the paper's importance: if they needed to advertise in the Daily Mail, what brand could afford not to?
Perhaps the most worrying analogy with today was the controversial practice of "farming". This involved agencies, then responsible for creative and media, buying all the ads in a magazine before any client interest. The conflict of interest quickly led to sharp practices. As Louis Collins, one of the leading media agents of the day, said: "Human nature is alike all the world over and, if a man has a pecuniary interest in anything, he is sure to regard it with a favourable eye and be blind to its many imperfections."
The similarity with some agencies' approach to programmatic buying - whereby the client is unaware whether the mark-up is 1 per cent or 90 per cent - is striking. Hopefully, concerted pressure will lead to this practice dying out as quickly as "farming" did.
As these anecdotes show, there is plenty to learn from Victorian marketers. The insights they had into human psychology, creating spectacles and seizing untapped media opportunities, are as relevant today as they were then. Perhaps, in our haste to incorporate the latest technology into campaigns, we have sacrificed these more timeless skills. Or perhaps consumers no longer want to eat cheese that has been dragged down a road.