From the September 2000 San Francisco Regional Mensa Intelligencer.
Editor's Perspective
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 staged traps.
    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 our culture.

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 together.

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 us.
    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.

Missed Mystique
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 Mrs. 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.*

Unfulfilled Promise
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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