Today’s (May 12) New York Times carries an article written by Arthur Brooks, the president of the American Enterprise Institute under the title, “How to avoid commencement clichés”.

The author says:

“When I asked my 20-something colleagues (about commencement speech), they warned me that, while this might sound great to a baby boomer at the podium, to a millennial audience it’s just product advice. It sounds more or less like the famous unsolicited counsel in the 1967 movie “The Graduate,” in which a middle-aged businessman told the young Ben Braddock: “I just want to say one word to you. Just one word. Plastics.”

So here’s my advice for anyone asked to give a commencement speech: Avoid plastics; put purpose ahead of product; emphasize sanctification and service. Also, keep it under 30 minutes.” http://www.nytimes.com/2015/05/12/opinion/how-to-avoid-commencement-cliches


I can associate the word “plastics” only with (1) synthetic resins, (2) credit card as a noun, (3) elastic, flexible as an adjective, and with no moral significance.

What does “plastics” that was dubbed as a cliché here mean?

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    You really have to have seen the Graduate to understand this reference. And it's not often used in convention speeches (at least, not literally). May 12, 2015 at 22:41
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    I don't read it that Brooks wants speakers to avoid saying "plastics", but rather he wants them to avoid the sort of very myopic focus that the speaker in The Gradulate was advocating. (Though, as it turned out, if one had invested in the plastics industry on the day the movie came out one would have made a tidy profit over the next several years.)
    – Hot Licks
    May 12, 2015 at 23:16
  • @HotLicks - so what does he mean saying : Avoid plastics; put purpose ahead....
    – user66974
    May 12, 2015 at 23:18
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    The issue here is the play on the word plastics both metaphorically and as an industrial product. He is using both!! – Josh61 5 mins ago
    – user66974
    May 12, 2015 at 23:33
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    @YoichiOishi - I think that the difficulty is for those who are not familiar with the methaphoric usage of the term which existed before the movie was made. The Graduate has certainly helped to divulgate its usage.
    – user66974
    May 13, 2015 at 7:01

2 Answers 2


Here is the metaphor that plastics represents in the movie The Graduate:

  • In "The Graduate" a smug Los Angeles businessman takes aside the baby-faced Dustin Hoffman and declares, "I just want to say one word to you -- just one word -- 'plastics.'�"

  • "The Graduate" didn't invent the use of the word plastic to signify everything phony and superficial in American life. It merely sealed it in, well, celluloid.

  • To sneer at all things plastic was to offer an instant definition of oneself as among the young, hip, truth-seeking cognoscenti locked in a moral power struggle with an older generation of square, corrupt, greedy, warmongering materialists. More than any other touch, its ridicule of plastic defined "The Graduate" as a film about the 60's generation gap.


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    That misses the point that the speaker was talking about the plastics industry, and he was suggesting that Hoffman's character get a job in that industry, because he felt it was set to grow rapidly. The implication is more about getting in on the "ground floor" vs the "plasticness" of society, and this is apparently what Brooks is referring to -- that graduates should be urged to seek out "purpose" rather than focusing on any single product or "concept of the hour".
    – Hot Licks
    May 12, 2015 at 23:13
  • Avoid plastics, avoid unnecessary superficial and irrelevant things and go straight to what matters!! The fact that he is in the plastic business creates an effect when he refers to the movie concept of plastics.
    – user66974
    May 12, 2015 at 23:30
  • @Josh61. In short, what would you suggest as a word in plain single word form to replace with "plastics"? May 13, 2015 at 11:59
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    @YoichiOishi - unluckily the link is not working, anyway plastics as discussed refers to something inconsistent , superficial, apparently real . Avoid plastics means avoid hot air, empty talk and concentrate on real, consistent, important things.
    – user66974
    May 13, 2015 at 13:07

In The Graduate. The man's advice to the new graduate Dustin Hoffman is clearly meant, like pretty much everything else in the film, to be satiric. The completely clueless kid watches and learns from all the soulless people in the society he is expected now to join.

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    Your observation adds nothing to the discussion.
    – Hot Licks
    May 13, 2015 at 3:01
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    Which is characteristic of 80 percent of your comments @HotLicks. The other 20 percent you're just wrong.
    – pazzo
    May 13, 2015 at 3:17
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    @pazzo: I could wish that Hot Licks had been a little less brusque with usermacketha, a new participant at EL&U who is still working out what the expectations are for questions and answers on this site, but I don't see how anyone can reasonably deny the validity of HL's comment under Josh61's answer. The guy in the movie offers Benjamin what he imagines is a piece of advice that he would have loved to receive as a young man: a hot tip about an industry that is about to take off. Except that the advice is empty and ludicrous; hence, usermacketha's accurate observation of its satirical edge.
    – Sven Yargs
    May 13, 2015 at 9:02
  • 'The man's advice' was, most definitely, not meant to be satirical: the man was depicted as intending it to be taken seriously. What you probably want to say is that the scriptwriter's inclusion of that advice in the script was meant to be satirical.
    – jsw29
    Feb 26, 2023 at 22:37

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