Did You Know About This Sizzling Greater Western New York Hidden Gem?

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How many times have you heard the phrase “Don’t sell the steak, sell the sizzle?” or some similar variation? It’s almost a universal axiom in marketing and sales. But did you know its connection to the Greater Western New York Region (and Rochester in particular)?

I actually came upon this hidden gem quite by accident. I often binge read old books on favorite subject areas. My theory behind this is simple: “What’s old is new again.” Of course, this idea isn’t new.

In 1858, George Eliot wrote in Scenes of Clerical Life, “History, we know, is apt to repeat itself, and to foist very old incidents upon us with only a slight change in costume.”

With that in mind, I used to binge on old movies. That same principle held there, too.

If you’re familiar with the reason I wrote The Macaroni Kid, (performed by the Monsignor Schnacky Players in 2009), you’ll recognize how this idea can be used in real life.

At the time, I wanted to test the hypothesis that good humor is eternal. So I wrote a stage play in the style of the Marx Brothers because I believed two things.

First, I felt people were less familiar with these famous vaudevillians. This turned out truer than I thought when it turned out many of the actors had no idea who the Marx Brothers were and had never seen their movies. If you ever watched clips from the show, you’d never expect this because the actors hit the nail on the head with their on-target performances.

Second, my gut told me their kind of slapstick, punny, humor had universal appeal for all age groups (similar to Bugs Bunny and The Simpsons). The testament to this was not just the pleasant reaction of the sold-out audiences, but the fact many came back to see the show multiple times and said, each time, they found something funny that they missed before. (The humor of the Marx Brothers was layered, so you’ll find jokes you didn’t catch the first time.)

That’s how the theory works. And the experience of The Macaroni Kid inspired me to continue my search for more “What’s old is new again” examples.

Much of this quest concentrates on the mass market. Whether it’s a company selling products, or a new medium attracting an audience, there’s a certain group psychology thing going on.

Even though one age is not a complete duplicate of another age, it’s certainly a variation of a theme. That’s what probably is meant by the expression “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.”

Side note: While often attributed to Mark Twain – by the way, another Greater New York Connection – there’s no real evidence he actually said this. But he did say (or possibly co-author Charles Dudley Warner) in the novel The Gilded Age: A Tale of To-Day, was, “History never repeats itself, but the Kaleidoscopic combinations of the pictured present often seem to be constructed out of the broken fragments of antique legends.” Of course, that’s a mouthful, so we stick with “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.”

If you want to discover the commonalities of the mass audience, you need to go back to the beginnings of mass media. Despite my earlier foray into the Marx Brothers, this wasn’t movies or even radio. It was print.

And it wasn’t national magazines, it was big city daily newspapers. Even though they were published by independent companies, they did feature content that was identical no matter which paper you opened. This was the advertising.

It was that the early copywriters represented the first mass market content creators. They had to appeal to a national audience. They couldn’t rely on local references to move customers. They needed to explore, use, and employ universal themes that would work across the land.

Do you see where this “What’s old is new again” theory is headed?

So, I’ve been binge reading these early copywriting pioneers for some time. Fascinating group. The original Mad Men. And they make it very clear where they got their ideas from, so it’s easy to pinpoint original sources.

A few weeks ago, while reading Profitable Showmanship by Kenneth M. Goode (one of those aforementioned sources, albeit second generation), I came across a reference to the 1937 book Tested Sentences That Sell, by Elmer Wheeler.

This sounded very similar to Scientific Advertising, the 1923 book written by Claude C. Hopkins, the first-generation dean of all copywriters. (Hopkins is often cited as the person responsible for convincing us to brush our teeth through his Pepsodent toothpaste campaigns.)

Curious to see if Wheeler merely copied Hopkins, I pulled up a copy of his book. His first chapter caught my eye: “Don’t Sell the Steak, Sell the Sizzle,” My immediate impression was, “Oh brother, not a book of bromides written by a wannabe know-it-all who just repeats common phrases.” Granted, these weren’t Hopkins’ phrases, but they were nonetheless overused cliches.

Then I discovered something unexpected. These weren’t overused at the time of Wheeler’s writing of this book because he was the one who invented these phrases! That’s right. In his day, Wheeler was on the vanguard, often referred to as “America’s Greatest Salesman.” And he lived in an era of media transition – from print to radio to television – and he was expert at using all of them. His client list read like the Fortune 100.

Armed with this piece of news, I enthusiastically dove into the roughly 200-page book. Buried within those pages was this quip: “My dad owned a gasoline station near Highland Park in Rochester, New York. On Saturdays and Sundays I would help him sell oil.”

Sure enough, he was born and raised in Rochester, went to school at West High and Charlotte High, where he held prominent positions in the school’s literary magazine, wrote a play for his class, and, for a summer job, was hired by the D&C to pose as a hobo and report on his experience. He later become program director for WHEC radio just as they were getting their 50,000-watt license. (For those who don’t know, this was 1180AM and would eventually become the home of WHAM radio.)

Wheeler offered a training class for salesman, in addition to his own consulting business. In 1941, when Wheeler, by then a well-known national celebrity, came out against pacificist Senator Burton K. Wheeler, the D&C referred to him as “Rochester’ gift to the gift-of-gabbers.”

If you explore Wheeler’s life, you’ll learn it was his sizzle that sold, not his steak. A traveling lecturer and author of 20 books (not all about sales, his Fat Boy books and newspaper columns started the dieting craze in the 1950s), he spent much of his life on the road. That didn’t give him much time to stake his roots.

Ah, the Marx Brothers. Was there ever a better kind of humor?

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