Selling the Sizzle

Every cliché has a story behind it, because irritating clichés are no more than things everyone knows said cleverly, or said in a way that once must have seemed clever. Still, they do persist. For some, the obvious is comforting, and of course a basic way of saying something stunningly obvious has to start somewhere:

The actual phrase “sell the sizzle, not the steak” was coined by stockbrokers, sometime in the “go-go” years of the 80s – not surprisingly, coinciding with the birth of cold-calling. They figured out quickly that in order to get your attention it wasn’t enough to tell you any concrete facts about the company whose stock was on the verge of doubling – rather, it seemed more effective to push your “fear and greed” buttons.

That cold-call cliché – sell the sizzle, not the steak – was a clever way of saying the obvious and became shorthand for all modern marketing:

Yes, we want to know if your product or service works. But what we really care about is how its usage (or ownership) will fulfill a need that we might have. As such, the most effective marketing and sales campaigns should always be focused on uncovering a specific need that your product or service might fill. In more concrete terms, think of these needs as being emotionally (benefit) driven rather than by purely concrete (features) solutions.

People’s objections to a purchase can essentially be narrowed down into four main groupings: No need, No time, No money, No trust. Please take a minute and think of something that you took a pass on. Keep breaking down the rationale behind your ‘no’ and eventually your destination will end up being one of those main reasons.

The rest of what follows that is a pep-talk on how to do this right, one of thousands out there on the net, all saying the same thing and most of them offering coaching services, for a fee, so you too can be successful and rich. All you have to do is focus relentlessly on the psychology of the exchange and not on your damned product, no matter how snazzy it is and no matter how proud you are of it. Forget that, and for a small fee, a professional will help you forget that, and make sure you don’t fall into that deadly “product” trap ever again. It’s not the steak, it’s not the steak – it’s always the sizzle! It works every time. Sign on the dotted line. You’ll see.

Politicians don’t need to sign up. They’ve known this all along, because all they have to sell us is sizzle, because the product itself is too abstract. They haven’t done anything for you yet, or what they’ve done so far – passing this bill or that – wasn’t done by them alone. Others voted for that thing too, so they’re selling a political philosophy (abstract and boring) and their amazing ability to get others to agree with them (usually questionable at best) and their conviction and awesome personality – which is all sizzle. There’s no steak there. There never was any steak there. There’s a reason no one has any respect for politicians.

It’s even worse for the party that is out of office at any given time, like the Republicans at the moment, controlling one half of the three branches of government, the House of Representatives at the moment. They couldn’t keep the Affordable Care Act from passing in 2010, in the brief time when they didn’t control even the House, and the fifty or more House votes to repeal the thing were no more than heroic votes to impress the angry base of the party, cloaked in what was supposed to be heroic martyrdom, and shutting down the government didn’t work, making them look like dangerous spiteful fools, and the Supreme Court had ruled the thing constitutional too. There were other threats too – forcing the United Sates to default on its debt, causing global economic collapse, unless Obamacare was made to go away immediately – but even they knew these were idle threats. They didn’t have much to sell the American electorate. There never was any steak, and they were running out of sizzle.

Now the midterm elections are at hand, this year, and they are in dire need of sizzle, and they’ve been working on three of the Big Four – No Need, as with Obamacare and comprehensive immigration reform and raising the minimum wage and extending unemployment benefits and setting school standards and anything to do with cleaning up the environment and so on, and No Money, as with anything that would goose the economy, because the deficit, while it has dropped dramatically, will explode one day soon and everything will fall apart, and No Trust, as everyone knows, or as at least as everyone on their side knows, no one can trust Obama to enforce any law at all.

All of this is classic “sizzle” marketing, and it hasn’t been going well. Polling has shown, again and again, that the country doesn’t agree with them on any of this – not even the rank-and-file of their own party. They need some alternative sizzle, and they’ve made a marketing decision about that. The alternative sizzle will be Obamacare – it’s a total failure and Obama should hang his head in shame – and Benghazi – Obama lied about that, to cover up his total failure in dealing with terrorism.

That’s it. That’s all they’ve got. The recent jobs numbers were stunning – so now there may be no plausible way to run on the contention that Obama, because he knows nothing about capitalism and may even hate it, never could fix the economy George Bush screwed up so badly. The data doesn’t help, and it could get even better, and even worse for them, but then that seems to be the problem with Obamacare too:

Obamacare is reducing the number of Americans without health insurance. And while nobody can say for sure exactly how many people are getting coverage, Gallup just provided a pretty big clue.

According to the organization, the proportion of adults without coverage last month fell to 13.4 percent. That’s lower than it was last year. That’s lower than it was when the Affordable Care Act became law – and when President Obama took office.

In fact, that’s lower than it’s ever been since the beginning of 2008, before the economic crisis, which is when Gallup started taking regular monthly polls on this question.

At Mother Jones, Kevin Drum digs deeper:

This represents roughly 10 million people, and confirms the number that Gallup reported a few weeks ago. It’s also starting to close in on the CBO estimate of 13 million newly insured adults by the end of the year.

Add to this the number of children and sub-26ers who are newly insured, and you’re probably up to 12-13 million who are newly insured under Obamacare. Some of this comes from people buying insurance through the exchanges; some comes from Medicaid signups; and some comes from people signing up for insurance at work thanks to the individual mandate.

More and better data will be available over the next few months. But this is yet another indication that after a rocky start, Obamacare is performing pretty well. It’s getting harder and harder to pretend otherwise.

The Washington Post’s Jonathan Cohn agrees with that:

Republicans and other critics of the health care law keep saying the law isn’t having much impact on the number of uninsured Americans. A few even suggest it’s having no impact at all. These arguments are just not credible anymore.

At this point, the trend in the Gallup polling clearly isn’t a blip. It points in the same direction as previous surveys, from the Rand Corporation and the Urban Institute. And it’s consistent with evidence about the raw number of people who have signed up for insurance through the new marketplaces – and, yes, who have paid their premiums.

Andrew Sullivan chimes in too:

It seems to me that the ACA is doing what it was intended to do. And can we have a moment of actual moral clarity here? Is it not simply better – better for the human beings involved, better for the economy, better for productivity, better for the deficit – if more people are insured. The more that have access to regular care, the fewer highly expensive emergency room visits in the future; the better the health of our fellow citizens, the more able they are to contribute to our common weal; and this is not to speak of the categorical moral advantage of simply giving someone their health back. We have become obsessed with process – and much of that obsession is good. It matters whether premiums are paid and what price they are and what the age mix is.

But none of this seems to me to be the real issue. Maybe it’s my Catholicism coming through, but isn’t providing for the sick a core moral task? And finding a way to harness the private sector, to do so more efficiently, is win-win. Which brings up a question: why aren’t the Catholic bishops doing more to support and celebrate this huge advance? It cannot be because of contraception can it? Even if you concede that point, the moral gain of this law compared with a small moral loss is undeniable. It seems to me that the bishops – including the bishop of Rome – could make that case much more emphatically than they have.

Indeed, what is the problem here? Where’s the sizzle? Obamacare not only works, but it should work, and Sarah Kliff adds special emphasis:

The gains of insurance coverage have been especially large among lower-income Americans – the people who qualify for Medicaid or insurance subsidies under the Affordable Care Act. There’s been a 5.2 percentage-point drop in the uninsured rate, for Americans who have a household income lower than $36,000 since the end of 2013.

Minorities and younger Americans have also seen steeper declines; the uninsured rate for African Americans has fallen by 7.7 percentage-points over the last four months.

These people vote too, or might vote if Republican efforts to change voting rules in states they control get shot down in court, and Pew Research is reporting that Republican efforts to change minds about Obamacare have changed nothing:

Public views of the 2010 health care law have changed little over the past several months. Currently, 55% disapprove of the Affordable Care Act and 41% approve. In September, before the launch of the online health care exchanges, 53% disapproved and 42% approved.

Republicans continue to be largely united in their opposition of the health care law – 88% disapprove and 10% approve of it. Among Democrats, about three-in-four (73%) approve, while roughly one-in-four (24%) disapprove of the law. Independents remain mostly opposed to the law, with 57% disapproving and about four-in-ten (39%) approving of it.

Views have not changed. The sizzle-marketing has failed, and there’s this new study on the impact of Mitt Romney’s early prototype of Obamacare on mortality rates:

The study tallied deaths in Massachusetts from 2001 to 2010 and found that the mortality rate – the number of deaths per 100,000 people – fell by about 3 percent in the four years after the law went into effect. The decline was steepest in counties with the highest proportions of poor and previously uninsured people. In contrast, the mortality rate in a control group of counties similar to Massachusetts in other states was largely unchanged. A national 3 percent decline in mortality among adults under 65 would mean about 17,000 fewer deaths a year.

So, are the Republicans arguing that 17,000 people should die each year? Well, those sorts of people wouldn’t have voted Republican anyway.

Adrianna McIntyre adds this:

If you think the study’s primary findings are impressive, consider their implications: “mortality amenable to health care” does not just magically decline. If fewer people are dying, that is almost certainly because diseases are being better treated, managed, or prevented – because of improved health. It’s hard to come by data on objective measures of health at the state level, but the “improved health” story is consistent with other findings in the paper: individuals had better self-reported health, were more likely to have a usual source of care, received more preventive services, and had fewer cost-related delays in care.

It will be hard to argue that this is a bad thing, and Sullivan sees where this leaves the Republicans:

The GOP offers nothing that can achieve anything like this. They are content that working Americans have to suffer sickness on a regular basis, without care and with health problems metastasizing until they are both far more expensive and far more intractable. They have lied and distorted and confused millions with their propaganda on this. And it should sicken anyone. So, yes, at this point there is a moral difference here between the two parties – a glaring moral difference. And of all this president’s considerable achievements over the last six years, this one we will remember for decades to come. You want to call me an Obama sap for that? Make my fucking day.

Those who hate Obamacare will continue to hate Obamacare, but that may be the only number that remains static. Betting it all on Obamacare may have been a bad idea, but then there’s always Benghazi, but even there there’s sizzle without any steak at all, as the MSNBC First Read team explains:

We understand why Republicans are again seizing on Benghazi in their effort to establish a select committee in the House to investigate the 2012 terrorist attack there. It fires up the base, puts the Obama administration on the defensive, and allows Republicans to knock likely 2016 candidate Hillary Clinton. (In many ways, the House leadership has no choice since some of their members have spent months claiming it’s one the great scandals of American history; it would be odd if they didn’t attempt to elevate it “special” select committee status.) But our NBC/WSJ poll from last week suggested that this is a riskier move for the GOP than it may realize. According to the poll, 47% of Americans want the United States to be LESS ACTIVE in world affairs, versus just 19% who want it to be more active. This is a country that wants it politicians to focus on the problems at home, not the problems abroad – or that happened two years ago. And after multiple congressional hearings on the subject, an independent review, and a months-long debate over the administration’s “talking points,” the question becomes: How much more does the public – outside the GOP base – want to hear about Benghazi? Does a larger summer focus on Benghazi make the GOP seem out of touch in this election year?

How much more does the public want to hear about the talking points offered by Susan Rice on the Sunday political shows on one Sunday morning long ago? There’s not much sizzle there, but when there’s no steak you need to offer something:

Conservatives have charged that the press has unfairly dismissed the legitimate questions about the 2012 Benghazi attack. What did the Obama administration know and when did it know it? Why wasn’t there better security? And why haven’t the attackers been brought to justice? But the problem these conservatives face is that every time they invoke Hillary Clinton’s name – especially in the context of 2016 – the more it looks like a political ploy rather than a substantive quest for information. Indeed, on “Meet the Press” yesterday, Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) made more references to Hillary Clinton (three) than President Obama or the Obama White House (one) when the subject turned to Benghazi.

There’s also a risk here that the GOP repeating its 2013 “Summer of Investigation” – Benghazi, calling on Attorney General Eric Holder to appoint a special prosecutor in the IRS investigation – gives off the impression that it doesn’t have a real legislative agenda on jobs, health care, or immigration.

Yeah, well, they don’t, but there may be something else going on, keeping Hillary Clinton from running in 2016 – just embarrass her, or goad her into losing her temper, and then point at her. People might, however, sense what’s going on here. Obama, not Bush, took care of Osama bin Laden, and he’s had those drones taking out bad guys every other day, so the idea he was covering up his failure to take terrorism seriously is hardly in question, so thus the scandal becomes his failure to use the words “terror attack” right away. Where there’s smoke there’s fire. He didn’t use those two words right away, and that says it all – he doesn’t understand terrorism. He’ll get us all killed.

Mitt Romney made that exact point in one of the presidential debates:

ROMNEY: I think it’s interesting the President just said something, which is that on the day after the attack he went into the Rose Garden and said that this was an act of terror. You said in the Rose Garden the day after the attack it was an act of terror? It was not a spontaneous demonstration?

OBAMA: Please proceed.

ROMNEY: Is that what you’re saying?

OBAMA: Please proceed, Governor

ROMNEY: I – I – I want to make sure we get that for the record, because it took the President fourteen days before he called the attack in Benghazi an act of terror.

OBAMA: Get the transcript.

[MODERATOR CINDY] CROWLEY: It – he did in fact, sir…

OBAMA: Can you say it a little louder, Candy? (Laughter, applause….)

There’s no reason to think the new super-awesome House hearings will be any different. We all know the drill – Two years ago Obama had his people use the WRONG WORDS! They actually didn’t – and semantic scandals, about comparative word choice, are inherently absurd, because they’re not scandals that matter to anyone but philologists. There will be laughter.

On the other hand, Jeanine Pirro, on Fox News, was calling for the impeachment of Obama over “a story no one wants to talk about” – Benghazi – and Slate’s David Weigel considers that:

Referring to that, on Fox, as “a story no one wants to talk about” sounded a bit like CNN asking where all the Flight 370 coverage had been. Not Pirro’s point – she was saying that the media failed to see where the Benghazi story was going to lead. Hint: Impeachment.

“We have impeached a president for lying about sex with an intern,” she said. “A president resigned in the face of certain impeachment for covering up a burglary. Why wouldn’t we impeach this president for not protecting and defending Americans in the bloodbath known as Benghazi?” Pirro then addressed the president directly—though at this point in the evening he was giving a sardonic dinner speech—with a warning that “your dereliction of duty as commander-in-chief demands your impeachment.”

Just one segment on a slow news night, but there was a sense of inevitability about it, of the Overton Window being shifted by hand. Ever since the aftermath of the Benghazi attacks, Republicans and conservatives have compared the Obama administration’s on-the-ground failure and intra-office spin job to Watergate. Politicos compare contemporary scandals to Watergate for one of two reasons: Laziness, or to gently raise the specter of impeachment.

Impeachment is the ultimate sizzle, unless you end up looking crazy:

“We’re probably one email away from Benghazi being an impeachable offense for much of our party,” fretted Republican lobbyist Ed Rogers in 2012, right after Obama’s re-election. “I think that’s nuts, but that’s where we are right now.”

That’s why Boehner’s endorsement of the select committee on Benghazi was so significant. “At one time,” former Rep. Pete Hoekstra told Newsmax, “Speaker Boehner said, if there’s any indication that that this leads to the White House, you know we’re going to go after this.” Boehner knew that Democrats would spend the next few months or years deriding a “witch hunt,” just as they mocked the Clinton impeachment.

And that’s also why the backup from Fox News matters, and why more conservatives will join the discussion. Next month the attorney and National Review columnist Andrew McCarthy will publish “Faithless Execution: Building the Political Case for Obama’s Impeachment.”

Fine, and Weigel discusses that new book at length, but it comes down to this:

“The danger in proceeding with an impeachment without careful presentation of the facts is that you might put the country through even more turmoil,” says Kucinich. “On the other hand, if facts are brought forward, public support would necessarily follow. But you can’t assume public support. It really requires a very, very strenuous effort, while we’re talking about an impeachment even before the facts of a hearing would be brought out. It’s very dangerous to do that – you do so and it’s not the president who gets impeached, it’s the investigation itself.”

Democrats hope as much; those of them who were around in 1998 and 2000 remember that the Clinton impeachment so damaged the Republican brand that George W. Bush had to run against his future allies in Congress. Clinton was weakened personally, and when it counted he wasn’t as powerful a surrogate for Al Gore as he could have been. The Clintons have recovered rather well since then.

“Any talk of impeachment is irresponsible and foolish,” says Ari Fleischer, Bush’s first presidential press secretary. “The committee’s purpose should be to answer questions that remain unanswered. If any Republicans start talking about impeachment, they will only hurt themselves.”

There is such a thing as too much sizzle. And the marketing gurus are wrong. Sometimes the steak matters. There ought to be steak.


About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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One Response to Selling the Sizzle

  1. Rick says:

    Loath as I am to belabor a dead horse, a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do. Here’s Jeanine Pirro on Fox News, giving words to the mental impulses of a number of her fellow Republicans:

    “Why wouldn’t we impeach this president for not protecting and defending Americans in the bloodbath known as Benghazi?”


    And, okay, if we’re still going after presidents for malfeasance in allowing Americans to die violent deaths, how about that even bigger bloodbath known as 9/11? Or a bloodbath even bigger than that, the Iraq War?

    In the 9/11 case, George Bush’s incoming transition team had been warned by Bill Clinton’s outgoing team about the dangers of non-state terrorism, specifically Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda — warnings they not only chose to ignore, but reportedly to ridicule as some weird and quirky obsession of the previous administration. And Iraq, of course, was not just a case of Bush sitting on his hands — guilt by omission — but him proactively starting a stupid and senseless war which resulted in deaths estimated by various sources as between a little over 100,000, to somewhere over a million, about four-and-a-half thousand of which were Americans.

    The reason we’ve heard so little of those two “scandals” is essentially because we Democrats decided, for some reason, to give Bush a pass. I guess we chose to think of these as honest mistakes. It’s what we do, because it’s the way we are.

    And that is why we’re having a hard time figuring out, for one thing, why Republicans seem to feel no shame as they constantly bring up Benghazi, but also, where the hell it is that they’re going with it, other than the obvious embarrassment that talking about it might cause the heiress-apparent to the next Democratic White House bid.

    But really, they are still mostly concerned with administration “talking points”, right? And even if they’re right about them — what is supposed to be their overall point? I keep forgetting.

    To see more on this, click here to see the number Jon Stewart did on the Republicans and Benghazi last night.


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