When You Don’t Promote, a Terrible Thing Happens . . . Nothing

P. T. Barnum? Pat Williams? Billboard? Ford Saeks? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: Human attention is a scarce commodity. Considerable effort is required to attract potential customers to a new business or product. Here are two versions of a pertinent saying:

  • Without advertising, a terrible thing happens . . . Nothing.
  • Without promotion, something terrible happens . . . Nothing.

These statements have been attributed to the famous showman Phineas T. Barnum. What do you think?

Quote Investigator: QI has found no substantive evidence that this saying was employed by P. T. Barnum who died in 1891.

The earliest strong match located by QI appeared in December 1975 in “The Danville Register” of Virginia. A radio station printed a message encouraging readers to purchase broadcast advertisements. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

When you don’t Promote
A terrible thing Happens
NOTHING
WDVA/RADIO

The author was unspecified, and QI believes an anonymous copywriter crafted the statement. Many years later, circa 1999, the saying was implausibly reassigned to P.T. Barnum.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

The same advertisement appeared in “The Bee” of Danville, Virginia the next day. 2

In April 1977 “The Salt Lake Tribune” of Salt Lake City, Utah printed the following advertisement with white text on a black background: 3

Without advertising
a terrible thing
happens . . .
Nothing

In May 1977 the “Daily News” of New York City published a piece about Pat Williams who was a sports executive with the Philadelphia 76ers professional basketball team. The journalist who visited the workplace of Williams highlighted the message on a sign: 4

Off to the side, on another wall of his office, a sign said, “If you don’t promote, something terrible happens . . . nothing.”

Williams eventually helped lead the basketball team to a championship in the 1982-83 season.

In April 1978 “The Morning Call” of Allentown, Pennsylvania printed a piece about the nascent gambling hub Atlantic City and shared the insights of public relations representative Sid Ascher: 5

“Atlantic City will be the world’s leading resort in the next five or six years and the world’s playground in the next 24 months,” he boasts. Of course, his office sports a large sign saying, “If you don’t promote … a terrible thing happens . . . nothing.”

In September 1978 a newspaper in Midvale, Utah published a variant expression: 6

The theme of the overnight affair was “Without Leadership Something Terrible Happens — Nothing.” The guest speaker was Judd Morgan, a vocational counselor at Utah Technical College.

In 1981 the comedian Phyllis Diller received credit for a joke that adhered to the same template: 7

TODAY’S BEST LAUGH:
Terrible thing happened again last night — nothing.” (Phyllis Diller)

In 1982 a newspaper in “Rockford, Illinois” printed this instance: 8

Without Direct Mail Advertising
a terrible thing happens . . .
Nothing

In 1993 music and video trade journal “Billboard” published this version: 9

SOMETHING TERRIBLE HAPPENS WHEN YOU DON’T ADVERTISE . . .
NOTHING . . .
CALL BILLBOARD CLASSIFIED

In 1999 the book “Celebrate Marketing: Secrets of Success” included a chapter written by Ford Saeks who attributed the saying to Barnum: 10

BURST INTO ACTION
A terrible thing happens without constant marketing . . . Nothing!
—P.T. Barnum

The 2001 book “Poor Richard’s Branding Yourself Online” included a snapshot of a webpage from Raleigh Pinskey which displayed the following: 11

“Without promotion, something terrible happens…NOTHING!”
P.T. Barnum

In 2002 Barnum received credit for another version of the saying in the pages of an Orangeburg, South Carolina newspaper: 12

“Without advertising something terrible happens – NOTHING!” — P.T. Barnum

In conclusion, QI believes this saying was concocted by an anonymous copywriter and entered circulation by 1975. Several versions evolved over time. By 1999 someone decided to ascribe the saying to showman and bamboozler P. T. Barnum to increase its impact and memorability.

Image Notes: Illustration of megaphones from geralt at Pixabay. Image has been resized and cropped.

(Great thanks to James Callan whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Callan was skeptical of the ascription to P.T. Barnum.)

Notes:

  1. 1975 December 7, The Danville Register, (Advertisement), Quote Page 15B, Column 3, Danville, Virginia. (Newspapers_com)
  2. 1975 December 8, The Bee, (Advertisement), Quote Page 8C, Column 6, Danville, Virginia. (Newspapers_com)
  3. 1977 April 24, The Salt Lake Tribune, (Advertisement), Quote Page 2W, Column 2, Salt Lake City, Utah. (Newspapers_com)
  4. 1977 May 22, Daily News, With the Doctor, ‘Pat Barnum’ Needs No Hypo by Mike Lupica, Quote Page 99, Column 2, New York, New York. (Newspapers_com)
  5. 1978 April 10, The Morning Call, Rags To Riches: Atlantic City’s is a real American story by Diane Stoneback (Of the Call-Chronicle), Quote Page 1, Column 1, Allentown, Pennsylvania. (Newspapers_com)
  6. 1978 September 7, Jordan Valley Sentinel, Disco dancing is in?: Sandy creates ordinance, Quote Page 11, Column 2, Midvale, Utah. (Newspapers_com)
  7. 1981 August 14, The Tribune, It Happened Last Night by Earl Wilson, Quote Page 13, Column 2, Scranton, Pennsylvania. (Newspapers_com)
  8. 1982 February 23, Rockford Register Star, Section: Advertising Supplement, (Advertising for Adams Letter Service Inc.), Quote Page F3, Column 1, Rockford, Illinois. (GenealogyBank)
  9. 1993 March 6, Billboard, (Advertisement), Quote Page 61, Column 5, BPI Communications, New York. (Google Books Full View)
  10. 1999, Celebrate Marketing: Secrets of Success, Sponsored by The Institute for Effective Marketing, Chapter 11: Align Your Market, Message, and Method by Ford Saeks, Start Page 201, Quote Page 222, Select Press, Corte Madera, California. (Verified with scans)
  11. 2001, Poor Richard’s Branding Yourself Online by Bob Baker, Appendix A: Online Success Stories, (Image of webpage from Raleigh Pinskey), Start Page 287, Quote Page 307, Top Floor Publishing, Lakewood, Colorado. (Verified with scans)
  12. 2002 January 13, The Times and Democrat, “Strategize To Advertise” Seminar, The Times and Democrat Advertising Seminar, Quote Page 9B, Column 1, Orangeburg, South Carolina. (Newspapers_com)