run it up the flagpole

The phrase run it up the flagpole and see if anyone salutes is credited to Madison Avenue admen of the 1950s. The phrase, and many others like it, is used in the context of brainstorming or “spitballing ideas” and refers to making a suggestion to see if people like it.

The earliest use of the phrase that I can find is in the April 1957 film 12 Angry Men, directed by Sidney Lumet and written by Reginald Rose, where it is uttered by Juror #12, a feckless advertising executive played by Robert Webber:

“I’m telling him about, in an ad agency, when a point like this is reached in a meeting, there’s always some character ready with an idea, see. And it kills me. It’s the weirdest thing, the way they sometimes precede their idea with a phrase. Like, some account exec will get up and he’ll say: ‘OK, here’s an idea. Let’s… run it up the flagpole and see if anyone salutes it.’ I mean, it’s idiotic, but it’s funny.”

The story had been produced as a television movie in 1954, also written by Rose, but the phrase doesn’t appear in that earlier version.

A month after the film’s release, the phrase appears in a Chicago Daily Defender newspaper column:

“Madison Ave. agency language has spread since the early TV days, and the ‘Let’s kick it around’ phrase meaning ‘Let’s talk about it.” The equivalent now is, ‘Let’s put it on the train for Westport [and see who comes down to the station].’ Then there’s, ‘Let’s jump on it and see if it squeals,’ and ‘Let’s run it up the flagpole and see if anyone salutes,’ and finally, ‘Let’s tickle it and see if it wiggles.’”

And an ad appeared in the New York Times a few months later that read:

“You’ll find the answers to these not-so-burning questions in December Holiday Magazine! The Article? The Minstrels of Madison Avenue! We suggest you run it up the flagpole, spread it on the cat (or better yet, read it) by tomorrow at the latest.”

Later in the film, Juror #12 also utters a less memorable, but more inane, equivalent:

“If nobody else has an idea, I may have a cutie here. I mean, I haven’t given it much thought, but let’s throw it out on the stoop and see if the cat licks it up.”

This may be a variation on the incomplete “spread it on the cat” phrase mentioned in the New York Times ad.

Of all these phrases, the one that survives is run it up the flagpole. It would appear that all these phrases did indeed arise among Madison Avenue admen, but the use of run it up the flagpole in the movie catapulted that particular one to stardom.

“Are Admen Underworked and Overpaid” (advertisement), New York Times, 14 November 1957, p. 67.

Lyons, Leonard. “Lyon’s Den.” Chicago Daily Defender, 27 May 1957, p. 5.

Partridge, Eric. A Dictionary of Catch Phrases, revised and updated edition. Edited by Paul Beale, Scarborough House, 1985, p. 259.

[Discuss this post]

Powered by ExpressionEngine
Copyright 1997-2019, by David Wilton