“Sell the Sizzle, Not the Steak” — or so says Elmer Wheeler

And if you’re in marketing or sales, either you like that phrase, or rather strenuously object to it.

Those who object say things like:

  • If you sell sizzle without the steak you’re a con artist
  • Sell the sizzle, not the steak,” is for people who don’t understand good steak and/ or hope you don’t

In other words, the phrase should really be “Sell the steak through the sizzle,

Clearer, perhaps, but not nearly as snappy, right? But here’s the point, and it’s why this is really important for radio advertising:

People don’t buy diamonds so that they can own a rock that perfectly maxes out the 4 Cs of color, cut, clarity, and carat weight. They buy the diamonds for the smile and joy they hope to see on the face of the woman they love.

Well, people don’t buy steak so they can intellectually appreciate how long it was aged, or the fact that their slab o’ beef received a “Prime” rating from the FDA or whatever. They buy the steak for the pleasure of the entire dining experience.

But these experiences are subjective and internal. It’s hard to “show” them. And if you attempt to visually show these things, you risk alienating the viewer with whoever you use as a stand-in for the woman or the steak-eater — that’s not their wife, and that’s not the kind of steak they prefer!

This is why De Beers had their ad campaign featuring shadows as viewer stand-ins. Remember those?

Shadows allowed them to visually communicate the inherent drama of their product (aka, the sizzle), without alienating the viewer from imaginatively putting him or herself into the story.

Radio Excels at Communicating Inner Experience

Radio doesn’t have the limitations of visual media.

Radio easily evokes subjective experience without mucking up listener identification. You hear the sound, and your brain puts you into the situation, filling in the details most appropriate for you.

The listener enters into and becomes part of the drama, no shadow BS required.

That’s why the sound of steak sizzling works for everybody, regardless of whether they prefer a ribeye, a filet, or a NY strip, and regardless of whether they prefer their steak as God intended, or perversely desire to muck it up by over-cooking it beyond rare.

So, indeed, do sell the sizzle — but realize that sizzle is a sound effect, and choose your media wisely.

If you want a great example of radio’s unique ability to convey subjective experiences in ways that TV and print just can’t, check out these Dove radio ads*, and you’ll become a believer:

Dove Tongue


Dove Blinking


But what if you’re not running radio?

Well, you should give it some thought, but if you’re stuck with something like print, realize the principle is roughly the same as “Show, Don’t Tell.”

You want the reader to infer how incredibly marvelous the steak is, rather than telling him outright. So your ad might look something like this:


*Dove Radio Ads created by Ogilvy & Mather London