The $4.5 Million Donation Letter Heard Round the World
If you’re a direct response marketing copywriter or entrepreneur who writes their own sales copy and wants to learn how to write better copies that maximize your sales and income, you should study the Admiral Byrd expedition letter.
No less an authority than Gary Halbert — one of the top direct response copywriters in world history — decreed that it is one of the nine exclusive ads he recommends studying to boost your copywriting skills.
Because even though it’s a donation letter (rather than a commercial sales letter), it does a better job “selling” its prospect than the vast majority of sales letters from for-profit companies do today!
Read on to find out why, my friend!
Here’s the story.
Admiral Richard E. Byrd was a famous American explorer and one of the first men in history to lead an expedition through Antarctica.
In the 1960s, a group of admirers started the Admiral Richard E. Byrd Polar Center, a nonprofit seeking to raise funds for research in both the North and South Poles that could be used for commercial and military development (this was the Cold War, after all, and America wanted to keep it out of the hands of the Russians).
Then one day, someone came up with the legitimately brilliant multi-million dollar idea that in order to raise money, the Center should re-create (safely) the Admiral’s original expedition for a small group of elite donors, with stops in all kinds of exotic locations.
For a $10,000 contribution (about $ 75,000 in today’s dollars), the letter offered the opportunity to go on an exciting 26-day journey by air on an all-expenses-paid excursion to Greenland, the North Pole, Alaska, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, Antarctica, the South Pole, Chile, Brazil, Senegal, Italy, and Great Britain.
Here’s how the letter begins:
“As Chairman of the Admiral Richard E. Byrd Polar Center, it is my privilege to invite you to become a member of an expedition which is destined to make both news and history.
“It will cost you $10,000 and about 26 days of your time. Frankly, you will endure some discomfort, and may even face some danger.
“On the other hand, you will have the rare privilege of taking part in a mission of great significance for the United States and the entire world. A mission, incidentally, which has never before been attempted by man.
“You will personally have the chance to help enrich mankind’s fund of knowledge about the last earthly frontiers, the polar regions.”
Sounds thrilling, right?
Imagine reading this and feeling your heart beat faster at the thought of joining the ranks of history’s great explorers, meeting new cultures, and traveling to exotic lands!
Moreover, did you notice how the letter right out of the gate states two big potential downsides of the offer: 1) It’s very expensive. 2) Discomfort and even danger may be faced by the donor.
This is no accident.
And it’s a highly effective strategy.
First, after a promising first paragraph, it gets the bad news out quickly and effectively so that the rest of the letter can be dedicated to selling the donor on joining the expedition.
Second and most importantly, it acts as a filter to weed out non-prospects, while also selling the ideal prospects.
An important fact about this particular letter: the fundraising campaign was targeted (according to Swiped.co, a direct marketing archive site) toward “men who were owners of large boats or jets.”
So naturally, these guys are not only rich but have demonstrated through their big recreational purchases that they also have a taste for adventure.
More from the letter:
“I am told that only a total eclipse of the sun is comparable, in emotional impact, to the first sight of Antarctica. Once experienced, neither can be forgotten. If you prove to be like most who have seen Antarctica, you will need somehow, someday, to return. And when you do, the emotional impact will be just as profound. That is what the Antarctic veterans say.
“For Antarctica exists well beyond the boundaries of the world you know. You will see there a sun you have never before seen, breathe air you have never before breathed. You will see the menacing white mountains towering for thousands of feet over a black ocean in which, with luck, you might survive for 45 seconds. You will see the awesome Ross Ice Shelf, as large as France, with its 50–200-foot ice cliffs leaving the sea for 400 miles. You will see the active volcano, Mt. Erebus, 13,000 feet of fire and ice.
“And you will see the huts, so well preserved they seem to have been inhabited only yesterday, which Shakleton used in 1908 and the ill-fated Scott in 1911. Antarctica, apparently, is not subject to the passage of time as we know it.”
Admit it. If you were a rich sailing and jet-setting adventurist, what more could you possibly want? Your fantasy adventure is laid out right there in front of you!
And the operative word here is “fantasy.”
Here’s what email marketing expert Ben Settle, who I’ve mentioned elsewhere in this book and writes one of the most useful and entertaining email newsletters in existence, has to say about the importance of drawing out your prospect’s fantasies.
“If you study copywriting for very long, you’ll eventually come across the term “salesmanship-in-print” which explains that copywriting is nothing more than selling in print (or on the computer screen or the TV, etc.). And that’s absolutely true. But, at the same time, a lot of high-pulling ads are also fantasies in print.
“In other words, your ad should–ideally–be one big fantasy for your reader. Why?
Because human beings like to dream and fantasize about things we want to have–like members of the opposite sex…new cars…new houses…a better life for our kids…a great looking body…popularity…love and respect from our peers…beating our friends, neighbors, and coworkers in the ‘rat race,’ etc.
“And if you want to add a new layer of raw selling power to your ads, simply learn what your market fantasizes about, figure out how your product fits into that fantasy…and then work it into your pitch.”
Lesson: This is such an important insight. When we read or watch a promo for a product we really like, what we really want is the fantasy that it is offering up to us that we desperately want (or, conversely, we really want to avoid the nightmare fantasy that the promo is warning could happen to us if we don’t do/buy X thing).
But whatever it is you sell, there are unlimited ways for you to build in more fantasy, more of your prospect’s fantasy, into your promos.
P.S. Are you wondering how successful the letter was?
Well, it easily sold the 50 spots it wanted to sell for 10,000 smackers each, totaling $600,000 in 1968 dollars.
How much would that be in 2020 dollars?
Adjusted for inflation, that polar expedition raised $4,444,775!
That, my friend, is the power of injecting fantasy into your marketing!
Nothing is more profitable than selling the fulfillment of your prospect’s fantasy to them.
© 2021 David Lowenthal Enterprises Ltd.
David Lowenthal is an independent direct response fundraising serving libertarian and other freedom-loving nonprofits.
This chapter is part of his book 32 Jackpot Marketing Secrets from History’s Greatest and Craziest Persuaders! If you would like to discover more marketing secrets from some of history’s most successful entrepreneurs, copywriters, politicians, negotiators, lawyers, talk show hosts, actor/directors, political activists, and much more, you can download a copy of his FREE ebook, 32 Jackpot Marketing Secrets from History’s Greatest and Craziest Persuaders!, by signing up here.
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