Hidden Selling – A Secret Way to Make Money

or, What I Learned from Muscle Builders, P.T. Barnum, and the Color Green)

by Dr. Joe Vitale

Scene One: It’s 1843. A mysterious entrepreneur hosts a Grand Buffalo Hunt in Hoboken, New Jersey. He anonymously advertises it as a free event open to the public. Thousands of people take the ferries across the river to witness the “wild sport of the Western Prairies,” which turns out to be a playful hoax. The buffalo aren’t hunted, are actually frightened by the crowds and eventually stampede off. They are later rounded up safely. The crowds give three cheers for the nameless person behind the entertainment. They go home happy.

Question: Who was the entrepreneur who orchestrated this free event? More importantly, how did he profit from it?

Scene Two: It’s 1934. An unusual event takes place at the Waldorf-Astoria in New York City. Billed as the Green Ball, highly respected designers, fashion experts, artists, society people and reporters are invited. The Green Ball showed the importance of the color green. There were green menus featuring green beans and other green food. There were talks on the importance of green in the arts. There was a newly created Color Fashion Bureau to help promote the color green in clothing. All proceeds from the event went to charity. Reporters covered it and the public ate it up. It was a major and mysterious occasion.

Question: Who made money from this free event? Who was behind it?

Scene three: It’s 1998. Muscle Media magazine hosts a yearly bodybuilding contest for average men and women. They give away an expensive book on training and supplements. They give away a two-hour professional quality video, called “Body of Work,” containing inspiring stories about the previous years contest winners. They ask for no money but request that you make a donation, if you are truly moved by what you see, to the Make-A-Wish Foundation, an organization that helps terminally ill children achieve a dream. People respond by giving more than $423,000, practically overwhelming the Foundation when 1,272 checks arrive in one day.

Question: How does Muscle Media make any money from all this giving? Who is behind it?

These three stories illustrate a business phenomena I’ll call “Hidden Selling.” They are events orchestrated to entertain and educate people, that are usually free, but which secretly sell something for some hidden benefactor. If this Hidden Selling method is organized correctly, the public will never care (and may never know) who made money from the events. They will simply feel good and willingly—even mindlessly—start giving their money to the entrepreneurs who designed the events.

Do you see what’s going on here? Do you sense the incredible power of a secret marketing technique at work?

Let’s look at each of the scenes above and meet the wizards behind the curtains:

Scene One: The Grand Buffalo Hunt was originated by P.T. Barnum. He had bought a herd of skinny buffalo months before, hired a man to nourish them back to health and then quietly announced a free “buffalo hunt” to the public.

The public did not know Barnum was behind the event. Barnum knew that their curiosity would add more interest. The public also did not know that Barnum rented the ferries for the day of the hunt. So every time someone got on board to go across the river, Barnum made money. He also profited from all the drinks sold at the show. In short, Barnum gave people a fun excursion for the day, charged nothing for it, but secretly made money from the sale of items people needed to get to the event: a ride, food and drink.

Weeks later Barnum announced that he was the entrepreneur behind the then famous hoax. People laughed and said “Barnum humbugged us again!” As a result, Barnum got even more publicity for his name and his businesses.

Scene Two: The Green Ball was created and implemented by Edward L. Bernays, the man considered the father of public relations. Bernays was hired by Lucky Strike cigarettes to find a way to make the color green fashionable to women.

Why? Lucky Strike packages had a green design. Research showed that women would not buy the packages because it did not go with their clothing. Since the cigarette manufacturer had invested millions of dollars in their product design, they would not change it. Instead, they needed to change women’s perceptions.

Bernays created the Green Ball to do just that. While no one is clear just how effective the Green Ball was in selling more cigarettes, it was clearly effective in making the color green the “in” color of 1934. As a result, Lucky Strike had to profit, if only in now having their package design accepted by all.

Scene Three: Bill Phillips is the editor of Muscle Media. He is the key man behind the magazine, the contest, the free video and the free book. He is helping people go for their dreams of being healthy and attractive. As he does so, he is getting rich.

How? Phillips’ company sells nutritional supplements for bodybuilders. The more people he inspires to become fit, the more people buy his supplements. Since supplements have to be taken daily, that means long term, consistent sales. While I don’t have numbers for what this means in terms of profits, I can easily imagine that he will pull in many times what the Make-a-Wish Foundation will receive as gifts.

None of these scenarios are in any way bad. (The cigarette event might be, but consider that it was 1934 and few knew of the harm of smoking.) I think Bill Phillips, Edward L. Bernays and P.T. Barnum all did something that focused on people, not profit. But behind the scenes, hidden from easy view, was a profit motive. They put giving ahead of getting. As a result, they got big-time.

I’m suggesting that you can apply this to your business, too. In fact, I’ll go as far as to say that in today’s skeptical age, when consumers are callused to high pressure sales pitches, you almost have to use Hidden Selling as an additional way to make a profit.

The way this method works, it also helps people. That’s what I like most about it. It forces you to think of giving, not getting. Barnum gave people what they craved in the high stress times of the 1800s: Fun. Bernays gave people what they wanted in the 1930s: Culture. And Phillips is giving people what they want today: Fitness. Truth is, people still want all of those qualities and always will want them. Human desires never change.

Do you see the pattern here? Focus on an altruistic end. Put money on the back end. Focus on giving people something they want. Put getting behind the scenes. Focus on an event. Put cash at the end of it. Forget “show me the money” and focus on “give people something.”

Hidden Selling is alive and well today, but not used as often or as cleverly as it could be. This may be your opportunity to use it to help others while helping yourself. As I point out in my latest book, There’s a Customer Born Every Minute (AMACOM, 1998) P.T. Barnum called it “profitable philanthropy.” As Bill Phillips says in the letter he sends out with his Body of Work video, “You must freely give of yourself first before you get.” He calls it the “Law of Reciprocation.”

Bottom Line: Find a way to host an event that truly helps people and let the back end of it in some way help you. The result could be making a difference in the world while also making more money than you ever dreamed possible. Isn’t that worth doing?