Rory Sutherland Rory Sutherland

The Presidents Club was on to something

Try hosting a charity auction where only tomato juice is served by elderly male waiters

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
2. Alcohol
3. Testosterone

Individually, each of these will have an effect.

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