There exist in the annals of salesmanship certain ideas that are both highly immoral and wickedly clever.
Before P. T. Barnum attached his name to circuses, he ran Barnum’s American Museum in Manhattan. From 1841 until its destruction by fire in 1865, this received more than 38 million visitors, each paying 25c. The entry fee entitled visitors to stay all day; congestion often prevented new paying visitors from being admitted, so to hasten traffic to the exits, Barnum placed signs throughout reading ‘To The Egress’ or, according to some reports, ‘The Great Egress’. Enticed by the prospect of seeing what they imagined was some exotic bird, less literate guests followed these signs through a door and promptly found themselves locked out on the street.
Heirs to Barnum in 1970s Britain distributed a catalogue that purported to offer a range of pornographic films and sex toys. At no point did the firm stock any of the products it advertised. Instead, anyone sending an order would receive a letter of apology stating that their requested smut was out of stock, accompanied by a perfectly valid cheque for a full refund. Unfortunately, the refund cheque was to be drawn on the account of, say, ‘XXX Adult Films and Services Ltd’. Since most recipients were too embarrassed to pay this cheque into their bank, the firm legally made a fortune selling nothing.
The Presidents Club seems to have been an abominable event for all sorts of reasons. But though it pains me to say this, it was also, whether by accident or design, cleverer than it looked. It made use of three combined psychological ways of separating rich, competitive, middle-aged men from large amounts of money.
1. The open auction
Individually, each of these will have an effect. In combination they are catnip. Try hosting a charity auction where only tomato juice is on offer, guests are served by elderly male waiters and the auction operated through private sealed bids. This, I suggest, would raise very little money.
Charming though he may be, few people would offer £10,000 for tea with the Governor of the Bank of England while sober at home alone. No one possessed of cold reason would ever pay money to meet Boris Johnson, since he would almost certainly be late or fail to turn up altogether. Add an auction, rivalrous male company, attractive girls and booze, and £10,000 is a bargain.
Auction fever is well attested: the amount people bid soon becomes entirely detached from the value of the item as a ‘win at any cost’ mentality takes hold. Even sealed-bid auctions distort behaviour: open auctions create a mild form of insanity.
Drunkenness saps self-control still further. Herodotus reports that Persians would put a plan into action only if they had approved it both while drunk and when sober. If they reached a decision when drunk, they would review it after a cooling-off period. (Intriguingly, they would also do the opposite; if they had made a decision while sober, they would then get drunk to see if it appealed equally to their pissed selves.)
Finally, the fact that men become competitively generous in the presence of attractive women is one of the best attested findings in evolutionary psychology — the more significant because it does not work in reverse.
So if ever you find yourself drunk, in attractive company and hear the words ‘Lot One’, clear the hell out. This will make you a better human being. It will also prevent you from infuriating your wife by coming home £5,000 lighter carrying a Mercedes crankshaft signed by Lewis Hamilton.
Rory Sutherland is vice-chairman of Ogilvy Group UK.