Selling the Sizzle

English: Maslow's hierarchy of needs. Resized,...

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Every salesperson has learnt that you don’t sell the sausage, you sell the sizzle.

Sizzle: “the desirable, tempting and enticing sounds and aroma that convince you to eat what is basically a dead pig.”

Sausages are only the start, of course. Wouldn’t you love more time? This new dishwasher will give you what you want! A dishwasher is what you have to offer, but the promise of more time is what you actually sell.

Don’t you long to stay young forever? This new cream/car/drink will make you look as young as you feel! The promise of eternal youth is so desirable, tempting and enticing that it can be used to sell almost anything.

This approach has been highly successful at selling dishwashers, cars, creams and drinks as well as sausages, but can it work with social issues? The social marketing movement certainly thinks it can, and it has some great ideas for improving communication (think Hillary Clinton vs. Obama, or the old Hillary versus the new).

But like all simplifying processes, it misses out something important. The sizzle approach assumes we all desire the same thing, that our needs and wishes are simple and fairly undifferentiated. In the background to all this is the highly influential hierarchy of needs established by Abraham Maslow in the 1950s. In short, Maslow claimed we all look for food and shelter before worrying about status and self-actualization. We only seek the higher order needs once our basic needs have been met. Seems obvious, but research carried out at Goon Park showed that primates don’t actually work like that: those baby rhesus monkeys sought out maternal comfort [even though fake] before basic food and water. Harry Harlow wrote, “Certainly, man does not live on milk alone.”

The secret to selling the sizzle of social progress is to recognize that the sizzle comes in four distinct varieties. Not one. Not two. Sure, four is harder to deal with than one, but the good news is it’s not ten – or fifty. If you can get your head around just four varieties of sizzle – four alternative storylines – then you can sell refrigerators to Eskimos and to everyone else for that matter.

Jonathan Haidt has a new book out which goes some way towards explaining the significance of emotions and intuition for moral reasoning. He says it much more elegantly, but the gist it that it’s not all sausage – a lot of moral reasoning is sizzle. However The Righteous Mind sticks to the traditional conservative/liberal distinction and so in my opinion misses some of the opportunities that a Cultural Theory perspective offers.

For more details read The beetroot lesson: the politics of disgust.

More on Questions about Grid-Group Theory

So Y asked three interesting questions regarding Grid-Group Cultural Theory. This is a line of thought, a method of inquiry, developed by the British social anthropologist Mary Douglas, along with numerous collaboraters, and more recently numerous younger adopters who never actually worked with Douglas. Its early presentation was in the influential book Natural Symbols.

DMK has already given a response to this in the original comments (many thanks!), and here’s my additions.

1. is the theory considered to be a post modern one?

Quick answer: no. Slightly longer answer: The theory was developed on the cusp of the rise of the postmodern as a dominant category of analysis. Neither Mary Douglas nor Aaron Wildavsky were involved with anything that would be recognisable as explicitly ‘postmodern’. Like Derrida, Douglas was strongly influenced by the work of Claude Lévi-Strauss. But whereas Derrida subverted structuralism, Douglas extended it. In particular they each took quite different approaches to Levi-Strauss’s methodological use of the distinction between nature and culture. In many ways Cultural theory might appear to advocates of the postmodern as hopelessly compromised by the ‘grand narrative’ that there are four and only four cultural worldviews. That’s what I like about it. On the other hand, there are many, I think, who see the ‘constrained relativism’ (Marco Verweij) of Cultural Theory as being too relativist for comfort. I like that too.

For more context, Richard Fardon’s book is invaluable: Mary Douglas: An Intellectual Biography.

2. does it have prestige in the academic world or is considered niche theory?

I think it has some prestige, but precisely as a niche theory. For example, in the study of risk, CT is one of three main approaches to the subject, but only one. In social anthropology it would probably be seen as obsolete.  Fardon’s book has a section entitled ‘Theoretical Marginality”. However, it’s quite possible to make an academic career out of Cultural Theory (or a re-branding of it) and a number of highly respected academics have adopted or adapted a CT approach for at least some of their work. But there is no large movement or institution that has adopted it as a significant approach. CT’s strength/weakness lies in that fact that it has been applied piecemeal in a large number of different disciplines. It appears to have an explanatory power as yet not fully realised.  I think the conceptual strengths of Cultural Theory have not really been matched by its methodological capacity. There is potential to further develop rigorous methodologies that develop some of the concerns of Cultural Theory.

3. do you think that online/virtual communities on the internet can also be classified according to the grid group (like wikipedia, linkedin etc)?

Yes. Prof Sun-Ki Chai, at the University of Hawaii is a very rare individual in that he has both published on Cultural Theory (he edited a book of essays by Aaron Wildavsky, I believe) and patented a web crawler that can analyse web data according to several social science approaches. His work shows a way to do what you suggest, from a predictive social science angle.

Some questions about Grid-Group Cultural Theory

Here’s some provocative questions about Cultural Theory from Y.  Before I attempt an answer, I wonder if anyone else reading this has an opinion or comment…

1. is the theory considered to be a post modern one?

2. does it have prestige in the academic world or is considered niche theory?

3. do you think that online/virtual communities on the internet can also be classified according to the grid group (like wikipedia, linkedin etc)?

Any thoughts?

Samuel Bowles on economic inequality as a policy option

Prof Sam Bowles has a couple of books that compliment the work of Richard Sennett on cooperation – one published in 2011, the other due later in 2012. Whereas Sennett takes a sociological approach, Bowles focuses on economics. In particular he has done some interesting work on computer modelling of property rights.