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“Let’s run it up the flagpole and see if anyone salutes it” is a catchphrase which became popular in the United States during the late 1950s and early 1960s. It means “to present an idea tentatively and see whether it receives a favorable reaction.” It is now considered a cliché. Sometimes it is used seriously, but more often it is used humorously, with the intention that it be recognized as both hackneyed and outdated. A non-joking equivalent would be “to send up a trial balloon.”
The phrase was associated with the advertising agencies then located on Madison Avenue in New York, and with the “men in the grey flannel suits.” Comedians, when mocking corporate culture, were certain to use it, along with expressions such as “the whole ball of wax” and the use of invented words ending in “-wise” (e.g. “We’ve had a good year, revenuewise”).
The phrase was also used as an ice breaker between serious moments in the Motion Picture film ’12 Angry Men’ starring Henry Fonda. The line was delivered by Juror no.12, an advertising executive played by Robert Webber.
In Stan Freberg’s 1961 comedy album, Stan Freberg Presents the United States of America: The Early Years, General George Washington, after having just received the nation’s new flag from seamstress Betsy Ross, announces that he’ll just “run it up the flagpole… see if anyone salutes.”
Allan Sherman captured the essence of this meme in his 1963 parody of Gilbert and Sullivan’s “When I Was a Lad.” In Sherman’s lyrics, the future exec graduates from Yale, buys a suit that “proved I was a member of the Ivy League,” and gets his first job sharpening pencils for an advertising VP. (“I sharpened all the pencils so pointedly/That now I am a partner in the agency”):
I worked real hard for the dear old firm,
I learned most every advertising term.
I said to the men in the dark gray suits,
“Let’s run it up the flagpole and see who salutes.”
The group Harvey Danger used the phrase in their song “Flagpole Sitta” singing,
Fingertips have memories,
Mine can’t forget the curves of your body
And when I feel a bit naughty
I run ’em up the flagpole and see who salutes
(But no one ever does)
As it became hackneyed, it got a second life as a launching point f