If we were to try to identify one point in US history where superficiality took root in America, it might well be a speech by an American salesman named Elmer Wheeler who in 1937 coined the now-famous maxim of “Don’t sell the steak – sell the sizzle!”. For those who don’t know, the sizzle is the sound made by a steak when it is first tossed onto a hot barbeque. His idea had merit. Looking at a photo of a steak or listening to a radio commercial about steaks would be unlikely to generate much immediate purchasing response, but hearing that sound might well recall fond memories and persuade shoppers to head for the supermarket. His theory was that it isn’t the simple product that generates a purchase but rather our emotional response to some element of that product.
Of course, it was American Jews who more or less created marketing, and Bernays’ advertising wizards were not slow to adapt Wheeler’s advice to virtually every product in existence. But, as with most things American, they didn’t know when to quit, and carried the process far past the end. It soon occurred to American businessmen that if people were buying the sizzle there was no need to provide the steak. It may come as a surprise to many people, especially Americans, but it was American companies, not Chinese, that created fake products and flooded the nation and the world with them. Since customers wanted the ‘sizzle’ of leather in their cars and on their sofas, anything vaguely resembling leather would suffice. It was Americans who created fake leather, wood, metal, glass, fake wool and linen, fake virgin olive oil and, eventually, fake people. The list is almost endless. Any natural product that could possibly be counterfeited – but nevertheless sold as the real thing – was produced and sold.
And it was primarily the conflux of sizzle and credit that led companies and marketers to create the propaganda of the American Dream; not the dream where you succeed, but the dream where you have the appearance of success. After all, borrowing money to purchase a fake leather sofa to show off to your neighbors is almost as good as actually having the money in the bank to purchase the real thing. And this is what the marketers marketed. The focus on providing consumers with increasingly less steak and more sizzle, along with the fake materials purchased on credit, eventually resulted in what we call superficiality, a term that describes Americans as perfectly as any other.
It is interesting to watch the continuing development of this process today. It shouldn’t be necessary to point out that Starbucks offers some of the worst coffee on the planet, which is natural since it was designed to suit American tastes. But you may be surprised to learn that Starbucks is no longer selling coffee; they are now selling “experiences”. The marketers and advertisers, aided and abetted by the propagandists and their Freudian background, have concluded that there is an even better way to loot bank accounts than offering fake goods on credit. In their view, shops once sold commodities (coffee beans), then became ‘service firms’ (coffee shops) where the commodity was standardised and the distinguishing consumer attraction was the quality of service. Inherent in that shift was the degrading of the commodity – which was expensive – and replacing it with ‘service’ which cost nothing but an artificial smile. They have now moved to a new level where we sacrifice both the commodity and the service, and replace both with “an experience”.
The propagandists and marketers, the offspring of Lippman and Bernays, are spending enormous sums of money on psychologists and psychiatrists to fathom precisely what it is about going to a Starbucks or a Wal-Mart that can create a positive emotional response. Yes, I know. I almost choked writing that sentence, but these people are serious. They want to identify the stimulus and to then fabricate the circumstances in an attempt to provoke that response. If successful, the fake commodity and fake service can disappear to be replaced by a fake emotional experience that you will treasure and one day excitedly relate to your grandchildren. It is all a false reality created with contrived experiences that are not real, but Americans are already on international speaking tours proselytising the new marketing approach. And it’s all fake, in the same way that most of America is fake. In the US, marketing is built on lies just as is virtually all else in the nation. It is interesting to watch Americans promoting this new view; they are unable to recognise that any part of their new bible contrasts with reality, and react with offense when Europeans tell them “You Americans are all about image instead of reality. Everything about you is fake and superficial. You people are living in a cliché.”
It is true that sitting in a coffee shop in Vienna or at a sidewalk cafe in Rome can be a treasured experience, a result generated by dozens or perhaps even hundreds of charming small details that combine to create a genuine appreciation of one of life’s little pleasures. But these wonderful small experiences cannot be fabricated and still generate a pleasure of life, except perhaps for Americans who appear to have lost entirely the ability to distinguish the sizzle from the steak and to whom the only genuine reality is superficial. There is nothing inherently wrong with wanting one’s customers to have a good experience, but the American attitude toward creating these is not genuine or sincere; it is cheap, fake, and artificial, a psycho-induced emotional response to a fake reality. Instead of trying to understand how to give customers a real, genuine, pleasant experience as they would receive in Vienna or Rome, the Americans are spending millions trying to understand how to fabricate in their customers the artificial “feelings” of an experience without actually giving them anything. One needs to wonder what the hell Americans think about, what goes on in those minds. And again, if anybody needs an “experience” so badly they have to go to a Starbucks or a Wal-Mart to find it, what they really need is a life.
One of the most obvious sources of evidence of the ingrained superficiality that pervades America today is fruit and vegetable production. There are almost no fruits and few vegetables produced in the US today that have any taste, and there are almost no Americans who know what good fruit tastes like. The reason explains much about the American mentality. US growers wanted to eliminate the natural blemishes that occur on most fruits, so these were cross-bred through many generations to produce a cosmetically-perfect appearance. Next, sporadic and uneven ripening was inconvenient and expensive since pickers would have to return for many days over a month or more to pick all the fruit, so growers cross-bred the fruit to ripen as nearly as possible on the same day. Next, tenderness and delicacy were a problem because fruits are often damaged during packing and transportation, so the growers cross-bred the fruits for toughness and hardiness. It’s no secret they succeeded. You can take an apple in an American supermarket and throw it against a concrete wall, with the only damage being to the wall. Then, they wanted to standardise the sizes, so they cross-bred for size consistency, after which shelf life was a problem. Natural fruits will last at best only a few days before they begin to spoil, so growers cross-bred fruits that could be picked green and would last for months. Finally, they cross-bred for artificial color.
In all of this, the Americans were so interested in cosmetics and profit that they sacrificed the only important quality which was taste. The result is apples that taste like cardboard if they have any taste at all, and most don’t. We can buy American Granny Smith apples in supermarkets in Shanghai, with a taste somewhere between clay and tissue paper. Eating an American peach is like chewing on a piece of soft wood. American oranges from Florida are just a bitter, tasteless pulp, as are most strawberries. One American grower claimed that the entire fruit industry was about “decorating stores”, instead of providing delicious food. It’s all about appearance, marketing and corporate profit, an underlying philosophy that perfectly mirrors the superficial American attitude to most things, from automobiles to education. The American version of a peach is a pretty colored ball of dry cellulose that can be picked green and hard, thrown off rail cars and thrown onto trucks, transported for weeks and stored for months, then ripened artificially by exposure to methane gas. It’s the perfect American fruit; hard as a rock, indestructible, has a shelf life of 75 years more or less, and with its lack of taste perfectly reflected in its customers. If you see an American apple in a Chinese supermarket in May or June, that apple has been sitting somewhere for almost a year, and the fact that it hasn’t rotted does not mean it’s edible. All American fruit should be avoided, not only for tastelessness but for the chemicals and GM dangers.
Mr. Romanoff’s writing has been translated into 32 languages and his articles posted on more than 150 foreign-language news and politics websites in more than 30 countries, as well as more than 100 English language platforms. Larry Romanoff is a retired management consultant and businessman. He has held senior executive positions in international consulting firms, and owned an international import-export business. He has been a visiting professor at Shanghai’s Fudan University, presenting case studies in international affairs to senior EMBA classes. Mr. Romanoff lives in Shanghai and is currently writing a series of ten books generally related to China and the West. He is one of the contributing authors to Cynthia McKinney’s new anthology ‘When China Sneezes’. (Chapt. 2 — Dealing with Demons).