Occasionally, we come across some jargon so tasteless that even the CDU's hardened palate finds it tough to swallow. Such is the case with the phrase "drink the Kool-Aid," corporate-speak for immersing oneself in a cultlike culture. Appearing in the 1980s and later applied to many a dotcom staffer, the persistent expression clearly wasn't just the flavor of the month.
The authors of Hard Drive (John Wiley, 1992), a book about Microsoft, quoted one employee observing of his coworkers, "If Bill [Gates] said drink Kool-Aid, they would do it." And The New York Times cited one analyst who said of certain Time Warner executives: "The AOL guys have got to stop drinking the Kool-Aid and get on the team."
The Kool-Aid-cult connection was concocted, of course, after the 1978 tragedy in Guyana, where more than 900 followers of Jim Jones consumed a grape-flavored cocktail containing cyanide. It remains the largest modern-day mass suicide on record.
Kool-Aid parent Kraft Foods boldly defends its cherished beverage, proudly proclaiming that "many of today's business leaders" once had Kool-Aid stands. A cartoony Web site with brash new flavors such as Slammin' Strawberry-Kiwi exhorts thirsty kids to, well, drink the Kool-Aid. And they do — more than half a billion gallons each year.
The CDU wondered: Just what does Kraft think of this business- jargon perversion of its treasured brand? We contacted Kraft's beverage spokesperson, Abbe Ruttenberg Serphos. After a longish moment, she allowed that she had heard of the expression. "But it wasn't even Kool-Aid that was used," she insisted. She referred us to a 1978 Washington Post article citing "packets of unopened Flavor Aid" scattered in the dust in Guyana. Flavor Aid has been proudly manufactured since 1929 by the Jel Sert Co., which also makes My*T*Fine puddings, Pop-Ice frozen treats, and other fine food products.
Fourteen-hundred miles away, Serphos's position was sweetened by Teresa Kreutzer-Hodson, curator of Nebraska's Hastings Museum, which hosts the world's only permanent Kool-Aid exhibit. "I'm thinking it has a kind of a bad association," she admitted. "But Jones didn't even use Kool-Aid — it was [Flavor Aid]. The name Kool-Aid is like Kleenex — people don't even think to use it properly."
Invented in the 1920s by a Nebraska mail-order entrepreneur, Kool-Aid was originally sold only in the Midwest. One of its earliest advertisements claimed the confection was "splendid to serve when company drops in."
So it seems from the beginning, people have been asking their company to drink the Kool-Aid.
"not on the napkin" — a half-baked notion; a pre-idea
Martin Kihn is author of House of Lies: How Management Consultants Steal Your Watch and Then Tell You the Time (Warner Books).
A version of this article appeared in the March 2005 issue of Fast Company magazine.