Those offers that can't be refused

A colleague has observed a strangely similar message emanating from two television commercials. One, for a candy bar, recommends the superiority of its whipped (otherwise known as air-filled) chocolate. The second, in behalf of an English muffin, boasts of generous nooks and crannies, otherwise known as holes.

Vacant space is being promoted as if it were the richest, the tastiest of solid ingredients, deserving a higher price. Nothing is being sold as though it were something.

Thus the salesman's axiom, ''Don't sell the hole, sell the doughnut,'' is being daringly reversed, and a new standard for hype has been established, or so our colleague sees it.

The same week that this marketing of air was noted the Wall Street Journal announced ''the Europeanization of America.'' The phrase fell, in fact, from the lips of a New York advertising executive who saw a new American customer emerging, ''very suspicious of quality,'' with a ''respect for the old, the traditional, the tried and the true.''

According to the latest market research, ''consumers will buy for real product benefits,'' it seems. ''They won't buy hype.''

Which is the true American consumer - the continental connoisseur who (the research predicts) is about to give up junk food and soft drinks in favor of cheese and fruit, and abandon pancake houses in favor of croissant shops? Or is the native buyer a naif, still ignoring every caveat and laying out money for air, hot and otherwise?

On the historical evidence, we would answer yes to both questions.

The first American play, ''The Contrast'' (1787) by Royall Tyler, featured the first American hypester: the Yankee peddler, who promised you that his razor , made of Damascus steel, was so sharp that if you put it under your pillow at night, you would awake clean-shaven in the morning. Sha-zaam!

When a Yankee peddler couldn't sell his coconuts, he advertised the exotic fruit as the egg of the gollywhopper, a bird twice the size of a turkey whose peculiar cries would put foxes and even bears to flight. Furthermore, the long green and red feathers of the gollywhopper were - trust him - just the plumes for your hat.

Talk about selling the little vacant lots in an English muffin or the gas in a chocolate bar!

But wait. There's the equal-and-opposite folk tale about the woman who wanted blue silk when all the Yankee peddler had in stock was green. ''Just imagine it's blue,'' he assured her, ''and it will be blue.''

''All right,'' she agreed, and walked away with the goods.

''But madam,'' the peddler called after her. ''Where's the money?''

''Just imagine you've been paid,'' she assured Sam Slick, ''and you will be paid.''

The emptor strikes back!

The American marketplace, as P. T. Barnum put it, is a theater of practical jokes where the occasional wooden nutmeg lends its own kind of spice.

The humorist Josh Billings said of American customers that they ''luv to be cheated, but they want to have it dun by an artist.''

On the one hand, the connoisseur demands craftsmanship. Just ask Detroit.

On the other hand, he or she wants this superior quality sold with superior pizzazz.

The verb ''to Yankee'' meant ''to hard-sell,'' if not ''to con.''

Our habit, alas, is to turn everything into a ''product'' - from politics to religions - and then ''sell'' it.

We've been living with pitches and spiels for over 200 years now. How could we survive without them? The national silence would be awesome. But someday, just for once, wouldn't a moratorium on selling (and being sold) be a relief? We'll do a soft-sell for that.

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