The myth of Sir Ernest Shackleton’s ad – an example of truthiness

It is one of copywriting’s legends. The ad used by Sir Ernest Shackleton to recruit volunteers for his expedition.

Shame it now appears that it never existed – but it still provides an excellent example of ‘truthiness’.

I delivered a great creative writing session yesterday for the Chartered Institute of Public Relations, with a group of hard-working, talented people.

As usual, there is always something to learn and improve, so I set to work, tweaking the course workbook which features the example of Sir Ernest Shackleton’s ad:

“Men wanted for Hazardous Journey. Small wages, bitter cold, long months of complete darkness, constant danger, safe return doubtful. Honour and recognition in case of success.”

It dawned on me that the ad did not have a ‘call to action’. Surely, the original ad must have had some form of response device for intrepid explorers to get in touch.

An innocent search on the web to source the original ad would provide the missing detail.

It now appears however, that the ad never existed.

Research by The Antarctic Circle, a non-commercial forum and resource on historical, literary, bibliographical, artistic and cultural aspects of Antarctica and the South Polar regions – has now laid down a $100 dollar challenge for anyone able to source the original ad.

One theory is that the ad might have been the product of a creative synthesis, which first appeared in 1948 of writer Julian Lewis Watkins’s book The 100 Greatest Advertisements.

An image of the Shackleton ad appears in the book but is clearly an artifice of what the ad would have looked like. (The game is given away with the spelling of ‘honour’ as ‘honor’.)

Shackleton may have used the ad’s phrases, or similar , in his letters and editorial to the Times newspaper, but a definitive ad containing the text does not seem to have ever existed.

So a classic ad, which now even features on T-shirts and has been used in some of the world’s finest creative writing classes (well, sort of) could face being cast off into oblivion.

Wrong! Regardless of the veracity of the ad, what the episode will now reveal is the power of ‘truthiness’ – people will want to hold onto and nurture the truth they want, rather than one formed by a logical reality.

A major philosophical concept, well at least a label, was not created by a philosopher – but by a comedian. During an episode of the political satire show ‘The Colbert Report’ comedian Stephen Colbert coined the word ‘truthiness’. It means in essence: ‘the quality of stating concepts one wishes or believes to be true, rather than the facts.’

Our reality is that we all see the world through ‘truthiness glasses’.

So, even though we now may know the Shackleton ad was a fabrication, it’s use and celebration of being a classic example of communication will still live on: because we want it to.

I will still use it as an example in my creative writing class, albeit with the caveat of it dubious historical lineage.

Men wanted for hazardous journey will live on. And that’s the truthiness of it!

2 thoughts on “The myth of Sir Ernest Shackleton’s ad – an example of truthiness

  1. Andy, your into writing, by definition your a poof. How do you know the advert was never run, were you there. Have you any idea what these men went through (as opposed to with you Andy, you going through men)?

    I have read many descriptions of the journey and ALL state this adverts placement…Go find something else to build fame off, you cant be a Brit because who would diss this incredible man…but an arsehole.

  2. Andy,
    I am a pastor and was about to use the Shackleton ad as an illustration. But in my research, everything points to the ad never having been published. But…I think I can still use it. After all, with hindsight we know that the difficult reality of Shackleton’s expedition makes the ad seem like an invitation to come join a kindergarten class. The truthiness is helpful in my case. I am working on a message that I’ll preach for a missions conference.

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