Thursday, May 4, 2017

What Killed the Greatest Show on Earth?

This month, after 146 years, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus is going out of business.  The greatest show on earth will cease to be.  

What killed the circus?

Some people believe that the death spiral began when elephants departed the Big Top last year after decades of public scolding and legal pressure.  But ticket sales to Ringling Bros. have been declining for the last decade.  In fact, there’s something particularly important about “the last decade.”

Kenneth Feld, chairman of Feld Entertainment, which bought the circus in 1967, said as much when he wrote, “There has been more change in the last decade than in the preceding 70 years.”[1]

That’s the real story.  It wasn’t the loss of elephants that killed the circus.  It was something far bigger, and--even as I write this--it’s killing more than the greatest show on earth.

Things Are in the Saddle: American Consumer 1.0

In 1924, journalist Samuel Strauss (1870-1953) authored one of the more prescient essays of the twentieth century.  Strauss’s “Things Are in the Saddle” concluded that something was happening in America that would have bewildered the Founding Fathers.  “What is the first condition of our civilization?” Strauss asked readers.  “Is it not concerned with the production of things?  It is not that we must turn out large quantities of things; it is that we must turn out ever larger quantities of things, more this year than last year.[2]

Strauss was describing nothing less than the rise of insatiable American material consumption, a kind of voracious capitalism that was bubbling up by the turn of the twentieth century and firmly in the saddle in the decade after World War I.  This hunger appeared in the guise of automobiles and vacuum cleaners, packaged foods and pianos.  And, Strauss added, a desire to shop for sport, and to treat consumption as a moral virtue, had turned Americans from frugal citizens into, what we might call today, American Consumer 1.0.
Men set to work to make and to get things; men devoted the best of human energies to things, men pinned their progress, their civilization to things.
We now know that Strauss was dead on, and we also know the horrific result.  Americans represent less than 5% of the world population but create half of global waste.[3]  Estimates suggest that, on average, humankind required 2.3 hectares per person, while American Consumer 1.0 uses 9.7 hectares.[4] 

When Apple’s senior vice president of worldwide marketing said he felt “really sad” that more than 600 million computers in use were more than five years old,[5] he was speaking for a brand of capitalism that depended for its health on consumers purchasing the next shiny product long before the last shiny product was used up.  Sometimes described as a battle between capitalism and the planet, author Naomi Klein writes that “capitalism is winning hands down.”[6]

If Strauss had been quizzed in 1924, he might have offered that this eruption of American consumption had reached a tipping point in the last decade.

So What Really Killed the Circus?

The greatest show on earth has been, for its entire history, a survivor.  It survived washed-out railroad bridges that killed employees and animals, and lightning strikes that killed patrons.  It survived the hand-cranked Victrola, the Model T, and the moving picture show.  It survived the income tax, countless fires, the Great Depression, Hollywood, the growth of suburbs and rise of cities, and two world wars.  And, yes, it even survived television.

But in today’s confusing, unforgiving marketplace, Kenneth Feld wrote, it just became too hard for the circus to hold on to its most crucial fans: wide-eyed kids and their nostalgic parents.[7]

“There has been more change in the last decade than in the preceding 70 years.”

And what the last ten years has brought, to steal a page from Samuel Strauss, is a kind of consumption that would have amazed not just the Founding Fathers, but Strauss—and many of us.  It's not more this time, but it's just as radical.  We have now been through our own, decade-long tipping point.  If Americans became bona fide consumers in 1924, we became bona fide digital consumers in 2017.   Welcome, American Consumer 2.0.

Connecting the Dots: American Consumer 2.0

The dots now stand out like a constellation.  In 1995,, craigslist, and eBay all opened for business.  Microsoft released its first version of the Internet Explorer, and Netscape went public. The following year, Nokia released the first cellphone with Internet capabilities. registered as a domain in 1997.  Netflix began killing the video store. By the close of 2000, 40 million Americans had purchased a product online.  Nearly half of all users said they would miss going online "a lot."

Seventeen years ago, being online was already becoming a seductive, compulsive activity.

In 2003, Apple launched iTunes.  Between 2004 and 2007, Facebook and YouTube were founded, Amazon launched its Web Services, and Apple’s iPhone and Google’s Android operating systems were released.  Mobile and smartphones boomed.  Suddenly it was easy to start an online company and reach people effortlessly, for almost no money.

By 2010, 35% of American adults had smartphones with apps.  Two years later, Facebook reached one billion users.  Two years after that, 73% of American adults are online daily, including nearly a quarter who reported being online “almost constantly.”

Between 2010 and 2014, e-commerce grew by an average of $30 billion annually. Over the past three years, average annual growth has increased to $40 billion.  “That is the tipping point, right there,” said Barbara Denham, a senior economist at Reis, a real estate data and analytics firm. “It’s like the Doppler effect. The change is coming at you so fast, it feels like it is accelerating.”[8]  

American Consumer 2.0 hasn't stopped shopping; he and she are just experiencing the world in an entirely new way.

The result is empty malls and shuttered stores.  “More workers in general merchandise stores have been laid off since October, about 89,000 Americans, than all of the people employed in the United States coal industry."

Source: Jeff Desjardins, “The Extraordinary Size of Amazon in One Chart,” The Visual Capitalist,  December 30, 2016, Web May 3, 2017,

Baiyin Zhou at Ascent Ventures captured this recently when she wrote:
Retailers are at a crossroads.  Sixty-four percent of shoppers still prefer buying from physical stores to buying online, but consumer expectations have evolved.  Retail is no longer simply about price or availability: it’s about experience both online and off, and excellent customer experience cannot be achieved without seriously switching gears.  We’re at an inflection point of disruption: adapt or die.”[9]
Elephants did not kill the retail store.  Elephants did not kill the mall.  And elephants did not kill the shopping experience.

In 2015, the average number of visits to an automobile dealership prior to purchase of a car was down to one, suggesting that the act of shopping happened online, and the dealership was the final stop only because there was no other way to take possession of the car.[10] 

Elephants did not kill the auto dealership.

In 2014, the League of Legends Championship drew a larger online audience than TV viewership for the final round of the Masters.  And many football fans have gotten to the point where they care more about their fantasy team, which they access in bits and bytes and five-minute chunks, than they do about their home team--which asks them to sit through three hours and a load of commercials on Sunday.[11]

There are no elephants at football games, never have been, and none at the Masters.

So what killed the greatest show on earth?

Elephants?  Not likely. You might as well blame Colonel Mustard in the parlor with a candlestick.  We’ve got plenty of elephants.  (Click here for one you can hold in your hands.)

What killed the circus is American Consumer 2.0   The pixel.  The screen.  The video game.  Online communities.  Virtual reality.  Mobile and social.  A new digital culture that hungers from the bright side of a screen.  

And you and I were there, living through this "last decade," 2007-2017, the one our history-bots will someday report as the tipping point.  Things are in the saddle for sure, but this time the saddle is virtual.  In other words, the greatest show on earth hasn't died at all; just look around--it's happening right before your very eyes.

[1] Lizette Alvarez, “At Ringling Brothers Circus, Preparing for the Final Bows,” The New York Times, April 7, 2017, Web April 26, 2017,
[2] Samuel Strauss, "Things Are in the Saddle," The Atlantic Monthly, November 1924, pp. 577-588.
[3] “Use It and Lose It: The Outsize Effect of U.S. Consumption on the Environment,” Scientific American, September 14, 2012,
[4] “The State of Consumption Today,” Worldwatch Institute, 2013,
[5] Brian X. Chen, “Choosing to Skip the Upgrade and Care for the Gadget You’ve Got,” The New York Times, April 20, 2016,
[6] Naomi Klein, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate, New York: Simon & Schuster, 2014, 22.
[7] Lizette Alvarez, “At Ringling Brothers Circus, Preparing for the Final Bows,” The New York Times, April 7, 2017, Web April 26, 2017,
[8] Michael Corkery, “Is American Retail at a Historic Tipping Point?”, The New York Times, April 15, 2017, Web May 3, 2017,
[9] Baiyin Zhou, “Shoptalk 2017: Retail is Dead!  Long Live Retail!”, Ascent Venture Partners, April 27, 2017,
[10] James Abdool, “Is the Digital World Finally Overtaking the Traditional Dealership?”, Arcadis, September 10, 2015, Web May 3, 2017,
[11] Ben Casselman, “Resistance is Futile: eSports is Massive ... and Growing,”, May 22, 2015, Web May 3, 2017,