So reads one of the most famous advertisements of all time, placed by explorer Ernest Shackleton in the London Times in advance of his legendary 1914 Antarctic expedition. The ad has been highlighted as a triumph of ad copy effectiveness, taught in writing classes for decades, and praised for its economy of words and blunt honesty. Additionally, because we know that the expedition was a success, this bleak precursor to the journey serves as an inspiration that humans are capable of fantastic feats of endurance.
The only problem is…the ad is probably fake.
The earliest the text can be traced to is a reproduction that appeared in a 1949 book titled The 100 Greatest Advertisements, but no original source has ever been found. Factor in the details that ‘honor’ is spelled the American way, despite appearing in a British newspaper and that Shackleton spelled it ‘honour’ in his other writings, and all signs point to this being a fabrication by the author of the book, Carl Elmore. In fact, according to The Smithsonian, there’s a standing reward offer for anyone who can prove the ad ever ran in a newspaper at all which has never been claimed.
What a disappointment, right?
On one level, yes, but I can’t help but still feel inspired by the ad, even after learning its false origin. I think it’s because the words still capture the unfathomable odds Shackleton and his men were up against so succinctly. In other words, this ad isn’t real, but it summons real feelings in me.
Which brings us to the production that opens our 15/16 Season. In Ernest Shackleton Loves Me, our protagonist, Kat, is a sleep deprived single mom who has just been fired from her day job as a video game music composer. When legendary gentleman-explorer Ernest Shackleton makes contact with Kat through a dating website, the two embark on an Antarctic quest, conquering new horizons and forging a time-traveling love affair for the ages. While it turns out that her historical suitor my not be actually ‘real’ in the strictest sense, the adventure they undergo brings Kat a very tangible sense of self-worth and strength. In this way, her fantasy gives her permission to confront something concrete and difficult from her life in a way I’d describe as brave and inspiring.
In a time where we all seem to be grappling with questions of authenticity, I find the takeaways from both the origin of the Shackleton advertisement and the story of Ernest Shackleton Loves Me to be right in line with the questions I’ve found myself thinking about daily. Perhaps whatever route you need to get to your destination, whether it be a treacherous journey on the Endurance, an insomnia-induced fantasy with a deceased explorer, or becoming inspired to act by a historical document with dubious origins, maybe the important thing is simply that you’ve found the inspiration to act.
by Ryan Walsh, Marketing & Communications Manager, ArtsEmerson