Where the Beef is Now

[January 5, 2010]

Over time, I’ve often been reminded of the classic catchphrase “Don’t sell the steak, sell the sizzle.” This phrase is actually just one component of an exhaustive theory of sales psychology developed by Elmer Wheeler many years ago. His “tested sentences” may have the archaic ring of pre-MTV America, but just run it through your own internal translator and I’m sure some of it will still ring true for you.

As a train of thought, Wheeler’s ideas have lost none of their relevance. The question in my mind is how to adapt his thinking for an audience drenched in advertising from the time it enters neo-natal care. At the start of the second decade of the 21st century, I’m afraid even the sizzle has lost most of its sizzle.

That’s because, as frequently happens with innovative ideas, selling the sizzle has succeeded too well. The unprecedented saturation of the world with sales messages has only accelerated the process. In the U.S. people encounter sales messages on billboards, in print, on radio, on TV, in movie theaters, on smart phones, on Web sites and even on the rooftops of yellow cabs.

Inevitably, our diligence in maximizing sales has started to bump into the law of diminishing returns. When everything sizzles, nothing does. Exhibit A? Ad-Muting. While this sport has been greatly facilitated by “remote control” the real question is: Why have our ads become so generic that consumers even have the impulse to mute them?

From remote control to direct control.
As I see it, Ad-Muting is only partly due to statistical factors like “changing demographic profiles.” What’s really going on is that people are turning away from passive entertainments like TV, and turning toward the feeling of control they experience in social networking environments.

After all, in social space you roam free, sending, receiving and responding only to the messages you choose. The only crimp in that freedom is the dawning realization that what you say in social space tends to stay in social space forever. It’s there to be cross-referenced, shared, quoted, posted, ridiculed and stolen for all eternity.

With that realization comes the commitment millions of people now feel to broadcast an emotionally invested and deeply personal digital identity.

So in 2010, I see advertising’s next frontier right through the cross hairs of that personal commitment. Instead of selling external attributes or fantasy benefits, it’s time to sell consumers a share of the brand itself, a sense that their concerns have a direct impact on the brand’s evolution.

By the same token, we can’t rely anymore on generic terms to make people feel sexier, richer or more gangstah. Instead of doling out “happy dust” we have to be more specific. We must show how the brand adds value to a consumer’s inner world of memory, desire, creativity and belief.

Make that connection and you won’t be selling a product or its sizzle, but something more powerful: A personal stake in the survival of the brand. That’s where the beef is now.


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Mark Laporta

Writer, Creative Consultant
New York, NY




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