I’m reading a fascinating book called Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain.
It’s about neuroscience and it’s full of handy and startling information that even I can understand.
(Read it if you want to know why some men are more likely to be unfaithful to their partners, or why female strippers earn more at certain stages of their menstrual cycle).
But when I read the bit in the book about the Ulysses contract, the copywriter in me sat up and began to take notice.
Although I’d never heard of the Ulysses contract (or Ulysses pact) before, I knew the concept well.
It’s really a fancy name for when you make a personal decision that binds you in the future.
If you’re anything like me, you’ll have made Ulysses contracts pretty similar to these ones of mine:
- Promising yourself not to open the wine until you’ve finished writing a sales letter
- Making an agreement with yourself not to watch a film until after you’ve taken the children to the park
- Resolving to give life as a copywriter 10 more years before embarking on a career as a master forger.
Our habit of making personal pacts like these provides copywriters with very useful insights – as I’ll show you in a minute.
But they’ll make more sense if you first know how the Ulysses contract got its name.
Watch on the rocks
In the classical tale, Ulysses wanted to hear the beautiful Sirens singing as he passed the island of Sirenum scopuli. The only problem was that their melodies drove sailors out of their minds, causing them to steer onto the rocks and to their deaths.
So Ulysses ordered his crew to lash him to the mast, and to fill their own ears with beeswax. They became deaf to the Sirens’ song, and could then follow Ulysses’ order to ignore any commands he made to steer towards the women – thereby saving the ship from destruction.
And in that way, Ulysses heard the song of the Sirens – and his crew had pleasure of lashing him even more tightly to the mast as he did so.
Saving us from ourselves
Like Ulysses, we’re always trying to find ways of saving ourselves from ourselves.
It’s something that’s much harder when you’re balancing instant gratification with long-term gain.
- Should I buy a huge plasma TV today, or save the money for my pension?
- Should I eat this chocolate cake now, or stick to my plan of losing six stones in weight?
Whether the short-term or long-term benefit wins out depends on how impulsive you are at any given moment, but one things for sure: like Ulysses, we certainly appreciate a crew that can dissuade us from making the wrong choice.
And this nugget of insight is a gift for any copywriter – it means you don’t make the mistake of reasoning with one person, but instead take sides with one of two conflicting impulses in their mind.
Which side you choose depends on whether you’re trying to sell TVs or pensions, cake or diet plans.
New lamps for old
And you’d be right. But also remember that the obvious can make you a lot of money.
In 1909, Merkel Landis, treasurer of the Carlisle Trust Company in Pennsylvania, dreamed up a clever idea.
His scheme was to encourage people to deposit money with his bank throughout the year, but only let them access it for a single, short period.
If they withdrew the money early, they’d be hit by a penalty fee.
His scheme became a lucrative moneyspinner, adopted by banks all over the US and later in the UK.
Not bad for an investment service that only offered its subscribers one main benefit – keeping their money so they didn’t waste it before Christmas time.
No wonder the Post Office runs a Christmas Club even today.