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Unconventional Tactics: What Thomas Edison Can Teach Us About Self-Promotion

Let’s just get this out of the way so you all know my position: Thomas Edison was a jerk. Really, just a horrible man; a real knee-biter. And yes, I know, on the internet that’s not exactly a unique or novel opinion, especially with the prevalence of Nikola Tesla fanboyism on the web. But, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s untrue, or that this opinion doesn’t have merit.

Now for most people, Edison is still the beloved inventor of the light bulb who worked tirelessly by himself in his lab. Funny thing is, other than the “beloved” part, none of that last sentence is true. Edison didn’t invent the light bulb, and he definitely didn’t work alone.

He probably stole that table he’s leaning on.

Truth be told, Edison’s best work was other people’s work. Edison’s “inventions” were really the result of the work of a small army of scientists and engineers he employed. He just made minor tweaks to the work of others or took other people’s inventions and claimed them as his own.

On top of all that, the man was known to exploit his patents for all the money he could wring out of them, and use whatever methods were at his disposal to discredit his competitors or disrupt their business. Whether it was using hired goons to break up theaters putting on movies made with unauthorized equipment, or electrocuting scores of animals to prove that a rival’s favored electrical current was too dangerous for use, Edison was a man used to getting his way.

So, then, the question is, how can a man whose accomplishments in d-baggery were so profound (he created both the electric chair and the modern film industry) also be a beloved figure (falsely) remembered as being America’s greatest inventor? Well, the thing is, he may not have been a very good inventor, but that doesn’t mean that Edison wasn’t a genius. It’s just that he was a genius at marketing, whether it was his “inventions” or himself.

The man was a master at maintaining a carefully controlled public image and almost everything he did in public was to maintain that Edison brand. His famous Menlo Park facility was designed with reporters in mind, so that he could control the situation in which interviews were conducted and how the public encountered him and his work. He made sure that the public would only see what he wanted them see.

“Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration” (of other people)

One famous instance of this image control would be the time he was supposed to meet with a reporter for an interview, but made sure to stop over in his shop first. He smeared his face and hands with a bit of soot to make it look as though he had just come from a hard day’s work in the lab. Whether or not he had actually been working the lab that day was irrelevant, what was important was that it appeared as though he had been hard at work, and artificially manufactured the situation to include blatant, immediately visible “evidence” of that work.

Of course, he could only manipulate public opinion if he knew what it was that public wanted. And that was another strength of Edison: he understood his audience. One of the first inventions that Edison brought to market was an electronic vote counting machine intended for legislative houses.Edison had hoped it would help make the legislative process more efficient. He was certain that his invention would sell like crazy, but no one wanted it. It turns out that legislators didn’t want the process to be made quicker and more efficient, as the process in place allowed for filibustering and politicking.

Edison had failed to understand what his potential customers wanted, and he vowed that this would never happen again. He decided that he would only bring an invention to market if he was certain it would sell. He is quoted as saying “I find out what the world needs, and then invent it.” However, a more accurate description of how the man worked would be that he found out what the world wanted, and invented it; including his Edison brand.

The people wanted a man of singular genius and competence; a man whose ideas and will shaped the world around him; a face that they could put on progress and American technological dominance. And Edison obliged. He made himself into this admirable, heroic figure, at least in appearance, and the people ate it up.

And it’s this mastery of publicity and image control that Edison should really be remembered and celebrated for, and something that companies should try to imitate today.

Here are a few steps for you to have the PR prowess of Thomas Edison:

1. Understand your audience. If you’re going to attempt to engineer a specific image for yourself, make sure you understand what the people want or what they’re likely to respond to.

2. Work to thoroughly control how you communicate with the public. Create a specific personality and stick to it as much as it is possible or practical in any and all marketing, press releases, and web presence. Engineering how the public interacts with your company can go a long way towards creating a specific public image.

3. Be ruthless. Now, I’m not saying you should be evil, but I’m certain Edison would’ve been down with out of the ordinary tactics. Though, I’m definitely not endorsing this, and if you should try it, be careful, because it could backfire in a big way. But, bold tactics can be incredibly effective if you want to be beloved and make your brand just as memorable as Thomas Edison.

What do you think? What underhanded tactics have you seen companies engage in? Are there companies that you think don’t deserve their good reputation?



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  1. Eric

    #3 is about the only legitimate tactic of his. Edison was a better businessman, I’ll say, but Nikola Tesla was a far better scientist. No idea why he’d need to smear himself with soot to get his hands dirty, because it seems Edison had more than enough experience when it comes to that. Alright. I could rant long enough to make this comment a counterpoint, but I think my sentiments have come through enough as it is. 🙂 If Tesla could’ve been the personality Edison was, who knows what life would be like today. It’s an interesting thought to entertain.

    • Mikey

      Very true. And Tesla is definitely starting to get the respect he had deserved in his own time and has become quite popular with the youth and the internet crowds. He really was an amazing man, that was sadly overshadowed by a much more popular man. Whether it was the War of the Currents or screwing Tesla out of a promised payday, Edison just didn’t seem to like the man. But, as I said above, Edison was kind of a jerk.

      • Wash

        Remember that one time when Homer Simpson discovered Edison’s five legged chair? That was awesome.

        • Mikey

          Heh, and Edison still managed to posthumously steal Homer’s automatic hammer invention!

      • Jason

        Where did you obtain this information from?

        Besides online sources?

        Do you have any specific passages in books where he would commit PR stunts?

  2. Cybernetic SAM

    This is really cool post Mikey! You know I heard that one of the original bulbs that another of one of Edison’s competitors, Adolphe Chailemade is still a bulb that has never burned out after 109 years!!

    This just goes to show given, Tesla and Chailemade invented things that unfortunately you could brand but would be have vast longevity (if not forever), therefore people would be less dependent on having to rely on a short -term product (such as the modern light bulb etc..), and as we all know that permanence doesn’t make money. So Edison did have some genius tactics and inventions that would keep the public dependent on them so it would be profitable. Not unlike, Non-renewable resources and pharmaceuticals. So in that sense he was a genius.

    • Mikey

      Yeah, Edison was generally more interested in the profitability of his patents than their effectiveness or longevity. But, again, he was a businessman, and to claim anything else is to really misunderstand what the man was all about. He may have been a self-righteous, stubborn, manipulative, thieving jerk, but he knew how to sell!

  3. Rachel

    Great post, Mike! I think Edison exemplifies what a lot of new business owners sometimes forget: you need to have a good product/service to sell, yes, but you also need the business and marketing sense to sell it. No one’s going to buy something if they don’t know it exists, or if they aren’t convinced that they need it. It sounds like Edison understood this well, even if he used shady tactics to achieve his success.

    Also, any time I read or hear something about Tesla these days, I inevitably think of David Bowie in The Prestige … 🙂

    • Mikey

      Very true. You have to be able to market yourself and what you’re selling effectively, especially in the current climate. And, if nothing else, Edison should be recognized for his business sense and his mastery of marketing. Heh, and that’s totally something else we can blame Edison for: he suppressed teleportation technology! Thanks for reading and I’m glad you enjoyed the post.

  4. Thomas Edison

    Some quite disrespectful comments on here about me.

  5. Kurt

    Really enjoyed this Mikey. Great writing, very funny, and educational. Screw Thomas Edison! when I get home I’m smashing all of the light bulbs in my house….and then instantly regretting it when it gets dark.

  6. Theodore Gravitas

    Many of the characteristics that we see in Edison we can see in many other successful people in the past and today. Lee Deforest, the inventor of the Triode tube which revolutionized electronics, was known for many of the same personality traits. Masterful self promotion, ruthlessly suing competitors, and questionable business practices among others. Nevertheless, he was a great inventor and probably not as great a promoter and businessman as Edison. Contrast this to someone who was probably a really nice guy like Tesla, Edwin Armstrong who invented the Superhetrodyne Radio circuit and FM radio which both were ruthlessly exploited by David Sarnoff of RCA who was a very good businessman but invented nothing. Edwin Armstrong was a brilliant inventor, but had his ideas taken from him for a pittance. He eventually jumped out of a window to his death in 1954. Many blamed Sarnoff for the Armstrong’s depression that eventually led to his suicide. As always, the pure genius inventor who has no business sense or no interest in making money gets cheated by those who are incapable of creating anything, but good at stealing and promotion. Over and over again, the truth of the saying is proven. Good guys always finish last.

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