The origin of the phrase, “Sell the sizzle – not the steak”

From the April 16, 1938 issue of The New Yorker:

If a Texaco salesman at a filling station has asked you, “Is your oil at the proper level today, sir?” or if you’ve ordered a malted milk at a soda fountain and the clerk has stood there, an egg in each hand, and asked, “One or two eggs today?,” then you’ve been under the subtle influence of Mr. Elmer Wheeler, head of the Tested Selling Institute, 521 Fifth Avenue. Mr. Wheeler has adopted the profession of seducing people in the mass with words. He advises merchants how to win sales and influence customers.

Mr. Wheeler composed that suave speech about the proper level of oil to replace the crude old question “Check your oil today?” There are nine words in it, to save you the trouble of counting back, and Texaco paid Mr. Wheeler $5,000 for it. This is $555.55 a word. He worked out the malted-milk-and-egg technique, for Abraham & Straus, so that they might sell more eggs at their fountain. He not only devised the phrase “One or two eggs today?” but also planned the gesture of the clerk holding an egg in each hand.

The scene of the soda clerk, the eggs, and the timid customer (who usually takes at least one egg in his malted milk when all he wanted was a malted milk) is now reënacted thousands of times daily all over the city. It is the perfect example of one of the principles of Tested Selling, which are masterfully explained in an essay written by Mr. Wheeler some years ago and recently expanded into a book with a red-and-yellow jacket. The book has a number of Wheelerpoints in it, and the egg episode dramatizes Wheelerpoint No. 4, which is “Don’t Ask If—Ask Which! “The essence of Wheelerpoint No. 4 is that the customer should always be given a choice between something and something, not a choice between something and nothing. This point is vital, but the great motif in Tested Selling is Wheelerpoint No. 1, “Don’t Sell the Steak—Sell the Sizzle!” On this majestic theme, Mr. Wheeler writes:

“The sizzle has sold more steaks than the cow ever has, although the cow is, of course, mighty important.”

Wheeler did the equivalent of today’s A/B testing in real life; he tried different phrases and sentences on people to see which sold more product, and iterated the changes until they were just right.

People put egg in their malted milk? Is that still a thing?

[The Sizzle / John McNulty / The New Yorker]

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