How Advertising Invented 8 Phrases We Use Every Day

Just another shampoo ad contributing to the cultural lexicon. (Image: Youtube)

Modern speech is riddled with catchphrases and cliched sayings. Even if you buckle down and give 110 percent of your attention, you've got a snowball's chance in hell of being able to recognize the origins of every cliche. That's just the way the cookie crumbles.

Many sayings infiltrate our conversation so easily because they started out as ad slogans, literally designed to worm their way into our lives. The most effective of those advertising brain worms outlive their original purpose, becoming a cliche that seems to have sprung up organically, rather than in a Madison Avenue boardroom. In the interest of letting everyone know that they’ve been sold to, here are the forgotten ads behind eight classic sayings.

“When it rains, it pours!”

If things are going poorly and the world seems to be crashing down around you, its a fair bet someone will utter the classic truism, “When it rains, it pours.” You might even mutter it yourself. But as it turns out, this homespun-sounding phrase came into the world to sell salt. Similar sentiment has existed for time immemorial but that specific construction of the phrase was invented in 1911 by a marketing company to advertise a special property of Morton Salt. Read totally literally, the phrase is actually describing the fact that Morton Salt won’t clump up when it gets humid or rains (they added magnesium to absorb moisture), as other salts apparently did. Even the iconic logo showing a girl spilling salt while walking in the rain alludes to this. The phrase is still the Morton slogan, but it is better known as a source of cold comfort to sadsacks everywhere.   

“Sorry, Charlie.”

Maybe you’ve heard your parents or grandparents say this to assuage one of life’s little let-downs. But this saying is not just a bit of sing-songy assonance, it was originally the somewhat grim catchphrase for a StarKist Tuna ad campaign that ran from the 1960s to the 1980s, encompassing over 80 television spots. The campaign featured Charlie the Tuna, a hip-to-the-jive fish whose goal in life was to be caught by StarKist, chopped into little bits, and canned. His reasoning? He had good taste. Get it? Of course StarKist was looking for tuna that tastes good, not the other way around, so Charlie would always be answered with a note that said, “Sorry, Charlie.” The somewhat convoluted gag is mostly forgotten to time, but the punchline has survived as a cheeky catchphrase that takes the sting out of disappointment. As the StarKist mascot, Charlie the Tuna has also survived, which he probably isn’t very happy about.

“Don’t hate me because I’m beautiful.”

This classic can usually be heard being jokingly bandied about as someone struts and preens, feigning cartoonish vanity. But it was real-life vanity that created the saying. “Don’t hate me because I’m beautiful” was a catchphrase uttered by actress and model Kelly LeBrock during a 1986 television commercial for Pantene shampoo. The commercial is a classic shampoo ad with an achingly '80s LeBrock talking into the camera about the product, but it was that first line that became a phenomenon. The star of Weird Science and The Woman in Red initially wasn’t even very happy about the line, and even turned down the role before being dragged back in by a dogged producer who chased her down the hall. And a good thing they did too, as the phrase was an instant classic, spreading into a print campaign, and the larger cultural consciousness. Many have forgotten that it was LeBrock and Pantene who created the saying, but nobody’s forgetting that cliche any time soon.     

“I’ve fallen and I can’t get up.”

Who hasn’t tripped or stumbled and uttered this quote to save a little face? It sounds like something that might have come from a movie, but the line has its origins in a television commercial for an emergency alert device for seniors—and was not meant to be funny at all. The ad, which first appeared in 1987, was for LifeCall, a system that provided the elderly with an electric button that could instantly call emergency services. It shows a series of snippets of injured or helpless seniors, one of whom shouts the famous line in an unforgettable Yiddish accent. The line isn’t explicitly funny, but the commercial’s dramatization was corny enough to make it look like a gag. The phrase quickly spread, and was used and parodied all over the place including TV shows like Roseanne and Family Matters. The line is still well known today, even though the commercial is long gone. It seems to be able to pick itself up just fine.        

“A little dab'll do ya.”

And a simple slogan can be more than enough to create a classic phrase. Another, rather antiquated, but undeniably ubiquitous phrase, “A little dab’ll do ya” isn’t just something people say as a cheeky way of telling you you don’t need much. It came into the world back in the 1950s as part of a jingle for Brylcreem “hair dressing.” In the original black-and-white commercial, a young man with dry, lifeless hair uses Brylcreem to give his hair a moist look that a female voiceover hilariously describes as “excitingly clean, disturbingly healthy.” The ad ends with a peppy little jingle that goes:

Brylcreem—a little dab'll do ya

Brylcreem—you look so debonair

Brylcreem—the girls will all pursue ya

They love to get their fingers in your hair!

Accompanied by a jazzy little puppet, the jingle was a memorable hit and its first line became a classic colloquialism.

“Don't leave home without it.”

Another classic quip that can be heard everywhere from the TV shows like The Sopranos to movies like Batman and Robin to that one person everyone knows who thinks they’re so clever. But this one, too, originated as an advertising slogan, this time for American Express Traveler’s Cheques. The campaign started in the mid-1970s and ran for decades. The first ad featured actor Karl Malden, who became the face of American Express, as he told a sinister story of a successful pickpocket before reminding viewers that their Amex traveler’s cheques could easily be replaced, finally counseling not to leave home without them. The instantly iconic line continued to be used in print and television ads, even as Malden was replaced by other celebrities in the commercials. By the late 1990s the campaign was phased out, but the catchphrase remained. It was reintroduced in 2005, but by then most people would be forgiven for thinking that American Express had stolen it from the general culture.    

“It takes a licking and keeps on ticking.”

Want to seem tough? Saying that you can “take a licking and keep on ticking” is probably not the way to do it. But at least people will know what you are talking about. What they might not know is that this classic phrase began as a watch ad. Developed by the Timex company in the 1950s, the catchy rhyme was the catchphrase attached to a series of print and television ads that saw Timex watches going through intense stress tests. In the very first television commercial, then famous and trusted newsman, John Cameron Swayze, demonstrated that the watch would still work after being attached to the end of an arrow and fired through a pane of glass. In another of the ads, a Timex was taped to a baseball bat and given to Mickey Mantle to hit a ball. The slogan survived into the 2000s before finally being retired. But like the watches themselves, the phrase was already ingrained in the common lexicon, even if people weren’t thinking of it as a Timex commercial.   

“A mind is a terrible thing to waste.”

No one likes to see potential squandered, and there has maybe never been a more succinct manifestation of this feeling than the maxim, “a mind is a terrible thing to waste.” But what many forget is that this truism is actually an advertising slogan for the United Negro College Fund. First rolled out in 1972, the campaign stressed the importance of providing an education for African-Americans, with one of the earliest commercials memorably showing a man’s head slowly fading away. The phrase continued to be used as the UNCF’s motto in all of its advertising, and is still the Fund’s slogan today. But like others on this list, the phrase itself has taken on a power of its own, expanding into the general vernacular, and leaving its origin behind.