|From the September 2000 San Francisco Regional Mensa Intelligencer.
by Meredy Amyx
The Case of the Counterfeit Sizzle
Once upon a time there was a
television show called Columbo.
Broadcast on NBC from 1971 to 1978, it starred Peter
Falk as an L.A. homicide detective whose vague and unprepossessing manner
caused killers to underestimate him, to their inevitable undoing. In his
shabby raincoat, with his frequent references to a seemingly limitless
number of in-laws who supplied him with suspiciously apt stories and object
lessons for any occasion, and a pathetic basset hound whose offscreen trips
to the vet in Columbo's derelict jalopy often preempted police business,
Lt. Columbo presented an absurd contrast to the typically polished, well-to-do
murderers he set out to catch. He fed their confidence, inflated their
arrogance, and led them by shrewd psychology straight into his brilliantly
Columbo was not a mystery in the whodunit
sense; the audience always knew the guilty party from the beginning. The
fun of this regular two-hour show was watching the lieutenant play the
suspected perpetrator along with his self-deprecation, his broad but oblique
hints, and his inevitable afterthoughts, letting the suspect corner himself
or herself in a lie or contradiction from which there was no escape. The
moment when the murderer realized that he or she had been outsmarted by
this bumbling lieutenant with the low-key manner and the homespun wisdom
was always the high point of the show.
Bye Bye Sky High Club
It was a thrill to Mensans nationwide when the episode entitled "The
Bye Bye Sky High IQ Murder Case" aired in the sixth season, on May 22,
1977, featuring a murder at the "Sigma Society," a club for geniuses, and
starring then-Mensan Theodore Bikel as the killer.
Shortly after this immensely popular show went off
the air, the network conceived a sequel called Mrs. Columbo, about
the never-before-seen and arguably nonexistent wife of the lieutenant,
introducing her as a reporter and amateur sleuth. The show debuted in 1979
with promotional hype such as "See Mrs. Columbo solve crimes! See her take
the dog to the vet!" It was obvious that the intent was to capitalize on
the superficial characteristics that made Columbo distinctive and
build a program on them without any substance beneath.
During that same period of the
midseventies, my job brought me into contact with the world of advertising.
For the first time, I heard the expression, "Sell the sizzle, not the steak."
Despite my visceral aversion to that expression, I understood the concept,
and I could see the point of selling the sizzle. My insistent query— "But
is there any steak?"—was regarded as largely irrelevant; clearly I was
not cut out for advertising work. That job left me with a lifelong heightened
sensitivity to how things are hyped, how audiences are targeted, and what
advertising tells us about the advertiser, the product, the audience, and
Selling the Sizzle
This new consciousness went with me to my first Mensa Annual Gatherings.
As early as 1974 or 1975, I was hearing promotional talk, with emphasis
on recruitment and media placements and above all membership numbers. My
reaction the first time I heard it was the same as my reaction to the notion
of selling the sizzle and not the steak: it was all wrong. Oh, it might
be an effective approach to getting prospective consumers of goods and
services to part with their cash. But for Mensa, it was completely off
the mark. Mensa is not a product to be sold, a commodity supplied to a
customer in exchange for money. The buyer does not take his or her purchase
away and use it independently of the supplier. Joining Mensa, like joining
any other organization, creates a relationship between the entity
and the purchaser of membership, the essence of which is interaction among
members. Soliciting members is less like selling a product and more like
seeking a roommate or recruiting for a job: the quality of the match is
of central concern because in one way or another you are going to be living
And that is why it is so important
that when Mensa describes itself to prospective members, it do so in such
a way that, first, we don't fool anyone into joining us expecting something
we're not, and second, people who would like us as we really are can recognize
You see, it's not just a matter of selling the sizzle,
because we're not just pocketing the money without looking back. We are
inviting people to become part of what we are. And that's why we must remember
this: Don't misidentify the sizzle.
The conceivers and promoters of Mrs. Columbo misidentified the
sizzle of Columbo. They missed the things that made the rumpled
lieutenant such a compelling character, and they tried to package and sell
the very things that should have remained unspoken and unseen. The intriguing
obscurity of Columbo's personal life, the mystique of the never-seen (and
possibly fictitious?) wife, the too-relevant familial anecdotes, and the
intrusive domestic concerns that made him seem perpetually bewildered and
bumbling and deceptively nonthreatening to his quarry all worked as a formula
for the detective in his own show; but those elements could not be isolated
and extracted and built into a show of their own without the lieutenant
himself. Not only is that selling the sizzle instead of the steak but it
forgets that without the steak there is no sizzle.
The originators of Columbo would have nothing
to do with this scheme or the program and disavowed any connection between
their Lt. Columbo and this coincidentally named but otherwise unrelated
and much-too-young woman, saying that the magic of the thitherto unseen
Mrs. Columbo was destroyed by bringing her to the screen.
Despite the talents of Kate Mulgrew, the show called
Columbo was generally greeted with a yawn and lasted only a few months.
Even an organization as smart as Mensa can make
a mistake of this sort. In the name of growth, we have been selling ourselves
to prospective members for decades. To do so, we have manufactured benefits
and advantages and slogans that have nothing to do with the essential character
of Mensa. As a result we have attracted members who thought they wanted
all those things, a significant percentage of whom lapse after their first
year. Meanwhile, we have no idea how many who might have loved us for ourselves
have passed us by because we didn't sound like an organization of fellowship
and intellect, frivolity and debate, but rather like a bunch of vulgar
show-offs who thought their brains made them something special and who
had a club that gave them group discounts.
This is the reason why, as long ago as 1980, five
members of San Francisco Mensa, led by Darrell Bross and including Sander
Rubin, Jo Ann Malina, Cynthia Dutra, and myself, met to form an initiative
known subsequently as "Renewing the Promise of Mensa" (RTPOM).
Harking back to the way Mensa was originally promoted to us—the long-obsolete
"little brown brochure," with its wonderful language: "Mensa is protean,"
we read, and we all fell in love—we agreed that what we wanted for Mensa
was simply that it be as it was described to us, and as we so clearly
saw that it could be. We talked about why it was and why it was not
and what we could do to make it so. Much of what we said and wrote then
still applies twenty years later.*
Today, it is my personal belief that Mensa has never been so far away
from fulfilling its promise. In the name of growth it has forgotten what
we are and has put greed for the dues dollar ahead of core values. Growth
for growth's sake has caused us to become something different, so that
we now have many members who came to "get" something and who remain, disgruntled
and complaining or simply indifferent, only until their dues expire. Miraculously,
we still attract some who get it at once, who intuitively understand the
nature of this collective creation, who sense the home that Mensa has always
been to some, and who quickly make themselves part of other members' great
experience of Mensa. But such newcomers are far fewer than before, and
the number of those who once set the tone is shrinking with age and discouragement.
Mensa's heyday is past. Its numbers
peaked about ten years ago and may never again reach their former level.
San Francisco Regional Mensa, for example, now has about two-thirds the
membership it had in 1990. That's all right; it doesn't matter. The promotional
activity that took the Mensa name from relative obscurity to sufficient
renown that it has appeared in comic strips and crossword puzzles has,
for better or worse, had its effect. People know we exist. There is no
need to strive to sell, sell, sell. Now it is time to take another approach,
much more like what we did in the beginning, and think about how
we attract members and not just how many. There is more than one kind of
growth, as those of us who are somewhat mature should know. The cliché
that whatever isn't growing is dying cannot be applied indiscriminately
to every situation and need not be a substitute for clear thought.
Let us begin to view our goals in another way. Let
membership be self-selecting to the point that those who remain in Mensa
are those who want to remain and those who join are those who want to join
Mensa as it is—the steak, and the right sizzle. Let no one be misled
into joining for something other than what Mensa is. Let us once again
become a little bit elusive and mysterious, a single line in a city phone
book, an occasional word in the press or a novel or a comedian's routine,
an interesting Web site. Those who want to find us will find us.
Don't worry, it won't take a Columbo to do it.
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