Drinking the Marketing Kool-Aid: The Origins of Popular Phrases

By Amanda Guisbond (@agbond)

Ever been in a meeting with a teammate, client or prospect, and heard a marketing/business phrase that made you pause to think, why the heck do we say that?? This has happened to me on several occasions recently and I felt the need to do a little digging on why, in fact, something can be explained “from soup to nuts.”

Feel free to pile on in the comments section on some more wonder-filled phrases I may have missed, whether you love them or hate them!

“Soup to nuts” – A fun image, and the inspiration for my post. In marketing speak, it means “from beginning to end.” It is derived from the description of a full course dinner, in which courses progress from soup to a dessert of nuts. Which means, if you’re me, it’s more like “From gazpacho to chocolate cake.”  In Latin, the go-to phrase is “from egg to apples.”

“Putting lipstick on a pig” – More common in modern political conversations, this is a popular marketing/business term for trying to dress up or disguise the true nature of a thing. This expression has been linked to the 16th century phrase “you can’t make a silk purse from a sow’s ear.” In more recent times, the term has been used to criticize “spin” and (fun fact!) Dick Cheney once called it his “favorite line.” Clearly, pigs have always gotten a bad rap.

Th-th-th-that's not very nice.

“Pushing the envelope” – This phrase was first used in mathematical terms, to describe the mathematical envelope, which is defined as the “locus of the ultimate intersections of consecutive curves.” (I’m sorry, what? I was a Humanities major.) More to the point – an envelope is that which envelops something. So by pushing the envelope, you’re pushing boundaries or limitations. This phrase was likely coined in the forties, when aviation folks discussed the “flight envelope” or the upper and lower limits at which it is safe to fly.

“Low-hanging fruit” – I used to LOVE this term to describe an opportunity that should, in theory, be an easy sell and quick win. In reality, veteran fruit pickers actually start at the top of the tree in order to avoid harder picking and poorer fruit.

“Drinking the Kool-Aid” – What did we say before the Jonestown Massacre, in which cult members were voluntarily poisoned with a Kool-Aid-like product called Flavor Aid? This phrase refers to a cult-like mentality that can affect a group or individual who has mindlessly accepted the dogma of a group or leader.

“The bottom line” – It will probably come as no surprise to the Economics majors, but the bottom line literally means the last line in a financial statement showing net income or loss. In marketing speak, the bottom line tends to mean the “main point” or conclusion of a conversation.

“Flack” – A derogatory, slang term for a PR pro or publicist, that I have come to loathe and yet, remain curious as to its origins. This one’s been a toughie to dig up – for example, did you know that the noun “flack” is English for a “slick spokesperson” as well as an anti-aircraft gun?? Trying to see the similarities here…

“The perfect storm” – This phrase has come to be synonymous with “worst-case scenario.” Sebastian Junger’s 1997 book by the same name introduced the phrase to popular culture.

“Fat cat” – The infamous “fat cat” has several meanings: in business, we think of it as someone who has become “well-fed” over the course of their career and now rests on his/her laurels; the simplest definition is a wealthy person. This expression originated in the twenties in the U.S. in reference to those who made large contributions to political candidates.

And for more “marketing speak” fun, check out the American Airlines commercial “Win-Win”  (Thanks, @kdespres !)

4 Responses to “Drinking the Marketing Kool-Aid: The Origins of Popular Phrases”


  1. 1 Kim September 2, 2010 at 2:50 pm

    This post was so interesting Amanda. You should do a follow up because there are so many more sayings that I’d love to know the origin of!

  2. 4 Aisa September 10, 2010 at 12:23 am

    LOVE this post!


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