Perhaps the Most Persuasive Advertisement Ever

Ernest Shackleton might not be a familiar name because his famous expedition to Antarctica took place more than 100 years ago. In one sense it ended in failure but viewed from a different lens it was one of the greatest human achievements ever. To entice men to join him he used perhaps the most persuasive advertisement ever.

In 1914, Ernest Shackleton and 28 men boarded the Endurance and set sail for Antarctica. The goal was to be the first humans to cross the continent using sled dogs. Weather conditions not only prevented the crew from achieving their goal, they were stranded for nearly two years on the continent and a small island. Despite the dangers, miraculously everyone survived. I encourage you to watch this National Geographic documentary to learn about this amazing triumph of the human spirit.

Legend has it  that Shackleton took out an ad (no one can find the original) in an English newspaper that read:

“Men wanted for hazardous journey. Low wages, bitter cold, long hours of complete darkness. Safe return doubtful. Honour and recognition in event of success.”

Take another look at the ad and think about it for just a moment. It starts with bad news and that bad news is nearly three quarters of the message! Why would anyone lead with bad news when it could turn away prospective crew members before they even finished reading it? A case could be made to not share any bad news because it might scare potential crew off. If it had to be shared then at least minimize the bad news and put it at the end. And despite these seeming errors, it was perhaps the most persuasive advertisement ever!

I’ll go so fas as to say, whoever wrote the ad copy was brilliant! Why do I believe that? Because, despite having no research to fall back on from behavioral economics or social psychology, the writer tapped into exactly what the research would have told them to do in order to be persuasive.

First is the ethics. It would have been unethical to try to hide the fact that the trip was going to be extremely dangerous. Being truthful about that most important fact gained Shackleton instant credibility from people considering joining him. After all, if he was truthful enough to address that right away he must be a pretty honest guy.

Second is the magnitude of the negative. As noted above, the bulk of the message (70% with 17 of 24 words) is related to the negative news. Shackleton wasn’t trying to hide the reality that it would be a very dangerous expedition. Only “You will die” would have been worse than “Safe return doubtful.” Shackleton didn’t try to minimize the danger, he actually went out of his way to highlight it!

Third is the order of the words. By starting with the bad news even more credibility was gained for Shackleton. More important than that; by ending the with good news – “Honour and recognition in event of success” – potential crew members were focused on the positive. Consider the two paragraphs below then ask yourself which would be more likely to motivate you to join Shackleton’s crew.

  1. “Honour and recognition in event of success. Men wanted for hazardous journey. Low wages, bitter cold, long hours of complete darkness. Safe return doubtful.”
  2. “Men wanted for hazardous journey. Low wages, bitter cold, long hours of complete darkness. Safe return doubtful. Honour and recognition in event of success.”

I’m sure the vast majority of readers opted for paragraph #2.

When it comes to recruiting to join you or your organization you may not need people who will risk life and limb but you can take the lessons from Shackleton’s approach to be a more effective persuader.

First, be an ethical influencer and share the downside about what you’re asking. Don’t stop there, make sure you share it in such a way that there’s no doubt about it, no perception you tried to hide anything negative. Next, consider the order of your message. Most of the time you’ll want to start with the negative and end with the positive because people tend to remember what comes last. Finally, something not in Shackleton’s ad that you’ll want to consider is separating the bad from the good with a transitional word like “but” or “however.” Transitional words emphasize the difference even more and make the end more likely to be remembered and acted on.

Simple advice that goes against “common sense” but can help you succeed professionally and personally.

Brian Ahearn, CMCT®, is the Chief Influence Officer at Influence PEOPLE, LLC and Learning Director for State Auto Insurance. His course, Persuasive Selling, has been viewed 140,000 times! Watch it and you’ll learn how to ethically engage the psychology of persuasion throughout the sales process.