Everything Old is New Again
by Charles Pappas
“Everything old is new again,” goes the song by Peter Allen. It’s never more true than when it comes to exhibiting. Because buried in the storied history of trade expos and world’s fairs of both the distant and recent past, examples of effective exhibiting at their core remain the same, no matter how much times and fashions change, and no matter whether your exhibit is 10-by-10 feet or 100-by-100 feet.
Three quick evergreen illustrations that come to mind are demonstrations, props, and processes. All have been used hundreds of times in myriad ways and yet no matter if the year is 1917 or 2017 or 2027, their powers to attract attendees and spur sales are, like the diamonds of advertisements, “forever.”
Demonstrations are a life and death matter
Product demos have been an integral part of world’s fairs and trade show since the very first one -The Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations – in 1851, when W. Pettit & Co. demonstrated what may be the first waterproof watch by dunking it in a glass bowl, with goldfish swimming in circles around the timepiece to stress the reality of its aquatic immersion.
*Onlookers shouted in terror when Elisa Graves Otis demonstrated his novel “hoisting machine” at P.T. Barnum’s New York World’s Fair of 1853/1854. Otis proved his engineering marvel could defy gravity by raising it two stories above the gathering crowd, who watched in genuine fear — elevators, such as they existed then, were only as good as the rope that lifted the unsteady cages. If those ropes snapped –and they often did with depressing regularity- the container plummeted and people inside met injury or worse.
Otis and his crew heaved his makeshift elevator into the air with Otis himself balancing on top. Once he had reached maximum height, he lashed the rope holding the elevator. It fell like a limp strand of spaghetti. The crowd gasped in wonder. Then Otis cried out, “All safe, gentlemen. All safe,” and the elevator stayed securely aloft, no less wondrously than a flying carpet, thanks to the ingenious safety mechanism he promised would keep him –and by extension the audience- safe from harm.
*Almost 160 years later, the stakes were just as high when Matt Moolman, the inventor of the Burnfree Survival Hydrogel Fire and Trauma Blanket demonstrated his invention at INPEX — the Invention and New Product Exposition. To prove his blanket would protect a person in the middle of a raging conflagration, he stacked bales of hay into a makeshift gauntlet, then lit them on fire. When the hay blossomed into a massive fireball, Moolman wrapped himself in the gel-covered shroud like a mummy and waltzed through the 1,500-degrees-Fahrenheit towering inferno … safe and sound. For an encore, Moolman wrapped his hand in the Trauma Blanket and turned a blowtorch on it.
The takeaway: Demonstrations of a product or service are a marvelous way to show the merits of a product, but they are at their most persuasive when they hold the possibility of genuine failure, or even calamity.
Props are always big, even the small ones.
Models of physical objects never fascinate as much as when they are displayed in versions much smaller or much more gigantic than normal. World’s fairs and trade shows have used them in an endless variety of ways, like the 5-acre reproduction of the Panama Canal, the replica of Hoover Dam, and the mockup of Teflon molecules.
*With its 1,200 workers building more than 76,000 cast-iron stoves annually, the Michigan Stove Co. wanted an equally mammoth presence at Chicago's 1893 World Columbian Exposition. Measuring 25-by-30 feet, a replica of its popular Garland model was built from 15 tons of carved oak painted black and silver to imitate the stoves' nickel-plated veneer. After the expo, the company relocated the stove to its Detroit headquarters, then in 1965 to the Michigan State Fairgrounds. On that location in 2000, the Antique Stove Association fittingly held its annual convention beneath the vast and vintage Garland.
* While AB Volvo’s full-sized cars were drawing raves at the New York Auto show a few years ago, its miniature models were also attracting eyeballs. The Stockholm-based carmaker placed five futuristic scale models on display representing different exterior designs that it was debating for a new small car. Ranging in length from 18 to 24 inches, the minute motorcars were parked next to a touchscreen, on which visitors to the exhibit could answer questions and offer opinions on the cars from looks to safety. Besides being easier and less costly to ship to the show than full-size versions, the compact cars were simpler to grasp visually than 2-D models would be on a screen. Additionally, their small statue made them stand out compared to the regular cars, and the feedback mechanism offered through the touchscreen further enticed visitors to make more than a quick pit stop with them.
The takeaway: Over- or under-sized props can make one feel like “Jack and Beanstalk’s” giant or the Incredible Shrinking Man. By taking a commonplace object and offering it in distorted dimensions, an exhibitor can draw inordinate attention to itself, with the prop on question becoming not just a traffic builder, but also potentially an object of fascination that will be long remembered.
Process is mesmerizing
Humans are hardwired to notice light, sound, and motion, and by extension, process, “a series of actions or steps taken in order to achieve a particular end” that can mix all of those attractors into a beguiling draw. Fairs have long embraced this tactic, from employing Geronimo in a booth making bows and arrows at the 1904 Louisiana Purchase expo to Ford Motor Co. installing a working assembly line at the 1915 Panama–Pacific International Exposition that turned out 4,400 cars during the fair.
*Back in 1939, how sausage was made was as much a mystery as an Agatha Christie novel. To convince the public that its meats were as hygienic as a hospital, Swift and Co. built an assembly line for its exhibit at the 1939–40 New York World's Fair where visitors could watch the entire procedure of how frankfurters were manufactured. So successful was it that Swift magazine ads emphasized that the franks made just like they were at the fair.
*Salvatore Ferragamo S.p.A, the Italian fashion brand whose founder once studied anatomy to make shoes feel like something more than dead weights attached to feet, offered a rare inside view of its methods in the Italian pavilion at Shanghai’s Expo 2010. Laboring behind glass partitions that made them look like part of a living museum exhibit, two Ferragamo craftsmen slowly and skillfully hand-built shoes from beginning to end. While at times spectators filed past other exhibits in the pavilion in a matter of moments, the cobblers’ time-intensive process held crowds in place as if they were tethered there by rope.
The takeaway: Overlapping with demonstrations, processes can serve to convey the quality and superiority of a product through what we might today call transparency. Moreover, people are drawn to process because of the sheer fascination of observing raw components being assembled by skilled hands into a coveted and perhaps valuable object. No matter if its sausages or shoes, though, process requires time, which means guests might be glued to a booth for several minutes or more. If the process is long enough, attendees may return to the booth on multiple occasions to observe the progress of nothing transforming into something over that period.
Charles Pappas is a senior writer at Exhibitor, where for the last 15 years he has researched and written the Archive column, which explores the history of exhibiting. His new book, “Flying Cars, Zombie Dogs, and Robot Overlords,” shows how when the world wants to see what the future will bring, it looks to world’s fairs and trade shows. Charles will also be presenting a session at the 2018 EXHIBITORLIVE, “How World's Fairs and Trade Expos Change the World.”