By Cory Phare
These days, Buffalo Bill (William F. Cody) is widely seen as a kitsch figure, the huckster who peddled a cartoon version of the “Wild West.” But the fact is, as a young man at least, he was the real deal. For the first half of his life, Cody really was a tracker, guide, soldier, rancher and leader of men. And his genius, during his later years, lay in rolling up all those authentic experiences and transforming them into mass entertainment. Here’s how he did it:
1. He wasn’t averse to finessing details about his past.
Much of Buffalo Bill’s legend was built upon the heroics of his early years. But according to historian John S. Gray, Cody’s biographical account of his Kansas boyhood features “such chronological confusion, absurd heroics, and sheer impossibilities as to defy anyone’s credulity.” A single example: During the period when he was supposedly risking life and limb riding with the Pony Express, he was actually, er, at school.
2. He had a clear playing field.
Today, there are 600 types of toothpastes in the U.S., and their competition for the privilege of reaching our toothbrushes is brutal. But Bill had virtually no competition. Nobody had done anything quite like his shows before (not on such a scale at any rate), so consumer choice didn’t really come into it. If someone wanted a spectacular Wild West show, there was only one place to go.
3. He was the absolute master of his own story. Or stories.
The scourge of “fake news” is a hot talking point right now. But even 150 years ago, Buffalo Bill was never one to let a few pesky facts get in the way of a good story. More than 1,700 stories – novels, biographies, newspaper stories, even plays – were written about the great man. Their purpose was clear: entertain his audience and build an enduring myth of the Wild West's hero. The fact that some publications stretched the truth didn’t really matter.
4. He successfully ‘bottled up’ a very brief period of history.
The era of the true Wild West was incredibly short – in total, it only lasted around 20-25 years. But Cody wanted to preserve the memory of what he’d lived through, and as a result his show was part circus and part living museum. He crystalized (and romanticized) a snapshot in time, and people couldn’t get enough of it.
5. He virtually invented what we now know as brand awareness.
At the turn of the last century, Buffalo Bill was arguably the most famous person on the planet – like Obama, Neil Armstrong and Elvis rolled into one. Such was his ubiquity, advance posters in soon-to-be-visited cities would simply show his famous hat, moustache and pointy beard – with the words: “I’m coming.” Bill also had incredibly strong “brand equity” – people would literally pay more for something with his name attached to it. He was the Nike of his day.
6. He was a pioneer of ‘puffery.’
According to the Federal Trade Commission, you can’t lie but you can exaggerate and bend the facts an awful lot – that’s why you see ads for “The best hamburger in the world.” This is known as puffery, which is a term “frequently used to denote the exaggerations reasonably to be expected of a seller” (FTC). Buffalo Bill was perhaps the original king of puffery. Today, many of his hyperbolic claims would seem outlandish and openly false – but given he came from an era where snake-oil salesmen and charlatans openly lied as a matter of routine, he really wasn’t so bad.
7. He was a merchandizing genius.
The man who invented the phrase “Wild West” also knew a thing or two about cashing in the public’s fervor for romanticized cowboy adventure. Audiences at his shows could buy all kinds of rodeo-related memorabilia, including posters, flags, clothes, hats and souvenirs. He was a true marketing pioneer.
8. He left behind a legend that still endures.
That unmistakable costume. The eponymous town (Cody, in Wyoming) that he established. The thriving museum on Colorado's Lookout Mountain. Even the ongoing dispute about where he is really buried (officially in Golden, Colorado, though some claim he’s resting on Cedar Mountain in Wyoming). All these elements help ensure that people still talk about him – even 100 years after his death (January 2017). The story goes on…
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