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James Ferragut, Published November 17 2012

Ferragut: Let’s toss clichés under bus

The pervasiveness of clichés is driving me out of my mind. I expected to hear this at a marketing conference where the speaker wanted to drive home the point that “… what it all comes down to” and “when it’s all said and done …”

But the speaker didn’t use any of those old phrases. He said: “At the end of the day …” And I thought, “Well, that’s a new one. I kind of like it.” But by the end of his day, he had delivered his metaphorical toy about two dozen times, and I was sick of it.

That was 2002. When I heard it again tonight on TV from a politician, I could have screamed. “At the end of the day …” a banality that is so old, so tired, so … yesterday.

Why do we use annoying platitudes years after expiration dates? What do we have to do to kill clichés? Why can’t we expel hackneyed sayings like, “At the end of the day …” and a hundred other stale phrases from our vernacular?

What about marketing people? The writers who delight in their ingenuity by seeing the world through an uncommon lens? They use their craft to communicate complex messages simply: “Got Milk?” “Just Do It” and “Chips are Free, Dinner Extra.”

We should designate these marketing mavericks, with their innovative and restless minds, to write Version 2.0 of “at the end of the day,” “we have to think outside the box” and the like, because it is at the end of the day for crying out loud, and that damn predictable box is still out there, daring us to see it from a contrary perspective. Could somebody please cut the box down, flatten it and take it to the recycling center?

Tom Wolfe used a phrase in “The Right Stuff.” Test pilots were pushing beyond known scientific and human capabilities as they tried to break the speed of sound. Chuck Yeager broke through in 1947. The test pilots said: “We pushed the outside edges of the envelope today …” which morphed into today’s “pushing the envelope.” It was the perfect metaphor for striving above and beyond the expected. I loved it then, I love it now. But it’s over. It’s time to push it out of our verbal toolbox.

Has anyone ever really been “… thrown under the bus?” Did some disgruntled employee really heave a back-stabbing colleague tossed into the path of a bus? Don’t you think the media would have taken that story and “driven it into the ground” as they say? It’s an urban legend. I Googled it.

Maybe we’re lazy, or maybe it’s the way our brains are hard-wired to give us permission to take verbal shortcuts. Whatever the reason, at the end of the day, I’m going to take the time to think outside the box, push the envelope and write 20 new clichés. If I fail, I’m going to throw myself under the bus. I kid you not.

Ferragut is a strategic marketing consultant and regular contributor to the Forum’s commentary pages.