Who Is Elmer Wheeler… and How Can He Boost Your Response Rate?

The year was 1937…

The Great Depression was still taking a heavy toll. Prices and profits were low… international trade was down by two-thirds… millions stood in line for jobs that didn’t exist.

But not everyone was suffering.

A young man by the name of Elmer Wheeler was paid $5,000 for coming up with nine simple words.

You see, at the time, Texaco was looking to sell more motor oil to their customers. Too many people, without giving it a second thought, said “No” when a service station attendant asked “Check your oil today?”

Wheeler suggested replacing “Check your oil today?” with “Is your oil at the proper level today, sir?”

Now asking something like “Is your oil at the proper level today, sir?” would seem to be just good horse sense. A line so simple you’d think most gas station owners would naturally come up with it — but few did.

Which is why Texaco paid Wheeler $5,000 for it… a small fortune back then.

They got their money’s worth and more. In one week, Texaco attendants got under 250,000 more hoods.

Another Wheeler triumph came when he was asked by the president of Barbasol to help them sell more shaving cream.

The slogan they had tried was “How Would You Like to Save Six Minutes Shaving?”

Wheeler suggested: “Use Barbasol. Just spread it on. Shave it off. Nothing else required!”

When they tested it, they found it increased sales by 102 percent.

A light bulb went off in Wheeler’s head, and he came up with another suggestion: “How would you like to slash your shaving time in half?”

That one increased sales by another 300 percent.

Over the years, Wheeler tested 105,000 selling statements for 5,000 products. He eliminated 100,000 of them.

Here’s how he summed up the philosophy behind what he called “Tested Selling”…

“Don’t think so much about what you want to say as about what the prospect wants to hear — then the response you will get will more often be the one you are aiming for.”

Great advice.

  • Wheelerpoint #1. “Don’t sell the steak — sell the sizzle.”

This just might be the most famous piece of sales advice ever. So what does it mean? Sell benefits and deeper benefits. Your prospect could care less about the product itself. Wheeler wrote: “The sizzle has sold more steaks than the cow ever has, although the cow is, of course, mighty important.”

  • Wheelerpoint #2. “Don’t write — telegraph!”

Back in Wheeler’s day, telegraphs were a popular way for people to send messages. But they were charged by the word. So, to keep the price down, they had to choose their words wisely. By saying “Don’t write — telegraph,” Wheeler meant “Make every word count.” He often said that the first 10 words of your sales copy are more important than the next 10,000, and you have only 10 short seconds to catch your prospect’s attention with them.

  • Wheelerpoint #3. “Say it with flowers.”

This simply means that it’s not enough to make a statement to your prospect, you have to prove it. In other words, you say “I love you,” and then you prove it by sending flowers. (Of course, you have to be sincere and do it convincingly.

  • Wheelerpoint #4. “Don’t ask if — ask which.

Meaning, always give your prospect a choice between something and something … never between something and nothing. For Abraham and Straus, for example, Wheeler worked out a way for their soda fountains to sell more eggs. Instead of asking “Would you like an egg with that?” the clerk would ask “One egg or two eggs?” while holding an egg in each hand. The result? Seven out of 10 customers added at least one egg to their order.

I’d like to add my two cents to this one…

I’m continually surprised by how many waiters and waitresses don’t use this gentle sales technique. Most ask if you’ll be having wine with dinner. Few say, “Will you be having white wine or red wine with dinner tonight?”

One more example from Wheeler:

He noticed that when a customer at the soda fountain requested a cola and was asked whether they wanted “small” or “large,” most chose “small.” He wondered what would happen if the clerk, instead, just said “Large one?” When they put it to the test, they found that seven out of 10 people said “Yes.” This simple idea could have a dramatic effect on a fast-food restaurant’s bottom line. If they sell 500 drinks a day and the difference between a small and a large is 50 cents, converting 70 percent of their drink orders to “large” translates into an additional $175 per day. Over a year, that’s an increase of $63,875!

  • Wheelerpoint #5. “Watch your bark!”

This one came out of Wheeler’s love of dogs — and how much you can tell about how dogs feel by the way they wag their tails and the sound of their barks. By saying “Watch your bark!” Wheeler’s reminding us that it’s not just what you say, but how you say it. For marketers, that means keeping the tone of their sales copy conversational and engaging.

I’ve printed out these five Wheelerpoints and taped them next to my computer. They’re as meaningful for all of us in the “persuasion business” today as they were when Elmer came up with them 60+ years ago.

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