“Men wanted for hazardous journey. Low wages, bitter cold, long hours of complete darkness. Safe return doubtful. Honour and recognition in event of success.”
Many of you have probably seen the famous advertisement above, which, as the story tells, Ernest Shackleton ran in the newspaper to try to recruit men for his Endurance expedition to the South Pole.
This ad is one of the most famous in history. It is often quoted as one of the best examples of copywriting, in books covering topics all the way from Introduction to Evangelism to Leadership, and even printing on tee-shirts.
However, the origins of the ad are very obscure. No one has actually seen the ad printed in a newspaper, though the Antarctic Circle has a $100 reward out for anyone who can find it, a reward which has never been claimed.
So far amateur historians have searched The Times archive from 1785 to 1985 (a little over-zealous given Shackleton died in 1922), the entire archive of the South Polar Times, a magazine called The Blizzard, several issues of the Geographical Journal, and the archives of a number of other national and local London newspapers, without success.
One of the first books for this ad to appear in was The 100 Greatest Advertisements: 1852-1958 written by Julian Watkins in 1949. The brief accompanying text says the ad was run in London newspapers in 1900, but does not give a footnote. A brief review of Shackleton’s life will reveal that he did not sign on with Robert Scott for his first expedition until 1901, and he did not lead his own “hazardous journey” for several years. The date is clearly wrong, making far from an auspicious beginning for the truthfulness of the ad. Other biographies of Shackleton give the date as December 29, 1913, and the paper as the London Times. However, the ad does not appear in this paper.
Although The 100 Greatest Advertisements is the book most commonly referenced in biographies of Shackleton, the ad had appeared in print before. It can be found in Quit You like Men by Carl Hopkins Elmore in 1944, five years before The 100 Greatest Advertisements was published.
Sir Ernest Shackleton when he was about to set out on one of his expeditions, printed a statement in the papers, to this effect: ‘Men wanted for hazardous journey to the South Pole. Small wages, bitter cold, long months of complete darkness, constant danger. Safe return doubtful. Honor and recognition in case of success.’ In speaking of it afterward he said that so overwhelming was the response to his appeal that it seemed as though all the men of Great Britain were determined to accompany him.
This book provides no footnote for the ad. One thing should be noted – honor is not spelled in the American style, rather in the English, as “honour.” Not only was this the normal English spelling, Shackleton himself used it in his books. This evidence seems to show that either the quote was fabricated by Carl Elmore or one of his sources, or that it was copied in a very sloppy fashion.
Not only can no references be found to an original source, searching the Times itself leads to nothing. The months covering Shackleton’s preparations for his expeditions have been read, and the rest of the paper programmatically searched, but both methods have come up empty. It would not have even made sense for Shackleton to place an ad in the paper. There was plenty of free press coverage of his expedition, and he would already have had plenty of men to choose from. Some of the descendents of his men remember being told their ancestors responded to an ad Shackleton placed in the paper, but this was likely a recollection based on reading the ad rather than something they were actually told. Frank Worsley, one of the crew members, wrote his memoirs and did not record seeing an ad, instead he just happened upon the expedition’s offices and decided to apply. Inspiring though it may be, it seems that Shackleton’s famous ad is mostly likely a myth.