’I believe hugely in advertising and blowing my own trumpet, beating the gongs, drums, etc., to attract attention, but I never believed that any amount of advertising or energy would make a spurious article permanently successful.’ - P.T. Barnum
’I believe hugely in advertising and blowing my own trumpet,
beating the gongs, drums, etc., to attract attention, but I never
believed that any amount of advertising or energy would make a spurious
article permanently successful.’ - P.T. Barnum
Harold Ruttenberg learned well from Mr. Barnum, the 1800s entrepreneur
best known for the circus that bears his name. Like Barnum, Ruttenberg,
who in just 10 years grew his Just For Feet athletic retail concept from
one location to a 180-store, dollars 775 million chain, had a knack for
making money. And the similarities between Barnum and Ruttenberg don’t
Like Barnum, Ruttenberg thought big. His massive, out-of-mall stores
featured video screens, booming music, free popcorn and basketball
While the traditional in-mall athletic footwear retailers focused on the
fashion-conscious teen, Ruttenberg set out to appeal to a much wider
Ruttenberg also shared Barnum’s strong belief in advertising. Just For
Feet’s frequent newspaper ads, though unpolished, doggedly touted the
chain’s blockbuster sales and giveaways. And it was Ruttenberg who
decided to buy time during the Super Bowl. While the ad was panned
widely, one had to admire his audacity, no matter how shortsighted.
But Ruttenberg, like Barnum, didn’t rely solely on paid messages to get
attention. For example, as part of the grand opening activities for Just
For Feet stores, employees would fling hundreds of dollars in cash from
Ruttenberg also welcomed calls from reporters, who were often surprised
when his name and phone number were listed on company news releases.
Writers also knew they could count on him for candid comments. Like any
well-trained CEO, he would praise his concept and management team
unabashedly. But he’d also criticize his competition, poking fun at
their work ethic and narrow focus. Ruttenberg, like Barnum, knew that
his outspokenness would generate more interest in him and his
Both were millionaires, showmen and trailblazers. But in the long run,
even Ruttenberg’s antics couldn’t prop up athletic retail’s ’Greatest
Show on Earth.’ Excessive inventories, over-expansion and reckless
spending eventually caught up with the chain, causing it to miss a
dollars 12 million interest payment on its bonds. The company filed for
bankruptcy in November.
Ruttenberg, it seems, failed to grasp what may have been Barnum’s most
important lesson: a ’spurious’ endeavor can only survive in the short
term, regardless of how well it’s promoted.
- Chris Anderson is an assistant visiting professor at Southern
Methodist University. He previously spent three years as the senior PR
pro at Footaction USA.