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When we speak of 'hot-button issues', what is the metaphor being implied? Are topics of conversation like 'buttons' at a machine, and sensitive topics likely to burn the broacher?

Any elaboration of the origin and exact meaning of the phrase would be appreciated.

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  • There is the expression push (or press) someone's buttons, as in firing button. Jul 7, 2022 at 18:50
  • There are contexts where a "hot" button, when pressed, will initiate some notable action -- sound an alarm, etc.
    – Hot Licks
    Jul 7, 2022 at 18:53
  • ... ponders whether there's a biological context
    – mcalex
    Jul 8, 2022 at 7:19
  • … ponders whether the metaphor must necessarily be from engineering—a button, probably red, that the user presses to stop something, send an alarm, lock or unlock a door, send an emergency alert. Like @HotLicks said. Sometimes you pull a red handle down, but often you just press the button. Use in psychology/marketing must come later.
    – Xanne
    Jul 8, 2022 at 8:33
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    I think Hot Licks' comment, which is unfortunately not in any of the answers (which seem to focus more on usage rather than explaining the "button" of metaphor), is the most accurate. As Weather Vane points out, "push/press [one's] buttons" is already a phrase, where the "button" represents a trigger for certain emotions or behavior in the target (the phrase generally being used to mean "rile someone up"). "Hot" is a general term to mean armed/live/active/etc. in the context of devices, so the "hot button" is a highly primed, highly reaction-inducing trigger. I don't think it implies a "burn" Jul 8, 2022 at 12:45

3 Answers 3

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TL;DR: The metaphor seems to have originated in the 1940s in the context of marketing (although a source below suggests that the term originated in the context of psychotherapy). The term then slowly made its way into politics in the 1980s.


This entry from Google Books provides a good insight regarding the history of the phrase hot button

From Quoth the Maven: More on Language from William Safire by William Safire:

Hit My Hot Button

"What's a hot button?" Newsweek asked itself in the homestretch of the 1988 campaign. "It's something a candidate says to instantly show that his values are the voters' values." The newsmagazine, in the forefront of popularizers of this phrase, listed Republican hot buttons as the American Civil Liberties Union, abortion and guns, and those of the Democrats as Social Security and Panamanian leader General Manuel Antonio Noriega.

Although Newsweek makes a point of separating the meaning of hot button from an "issue" or anything a candidate will have to deal with if elected, the magazine sometimes uses the noun phrase adjectivally to modify social issue, a term coined by Ben J. Wattenberg and Richard M. Scammon in 1970. It reported after the first debate that Mr. Bush had held his own on "the hot-button social issues of crime, abortion and the death penalty," but later added that "the hot-button attacks that had tarred Dukakis as unpatriotic and soft on crime were beginning to backfire."

The Wall Street Journal also treated social issue as subsumed by the broader category of hot-button issues: "Take the social issues ..." wrote the Journal editorialist. "Outside of places such as Cambridge and Georgetown, these are hot-button issues."

The adjectival button was born in this campaign, but the noun form predates it. An aide to Senator Bob Dole was quoted last year describing Ambassador Jeane J. Kirkpatrick as a speaker who "hits a hot button with conservatives on foreign policy," picking up a usage of the Senator's in regard to Social Security. As early as 1981, John L. Stevens, then director of the Republican Governors Association, was quoted in The Washington Post as saying, "There are a whole lot of hot buttons waiting to be pushed; we're still trying to find out what those buttons are."

The phrase was created in the hard-sell field of consumer marketing, which offers a silent commentary on the central thrust of this year's political campaign. "The marketers are searching," wrote Walter Kiechel 3d in Fortune on September 11, 1978, "for what they call 'consumer hot buttons'—needs to be satisfied, desires to be slaked—and the means to push those buttons." Forbes magazine was on top of the neologism a month later in a piece about direct-mail solicitation of companies for sale: "The hot buttons are money and leisure."

The computer world, which operates on keys and buttons as well as mouses, picked up the term in 1983: hot-button windowing uses a single keystroke to split screens, allowing users to view different sets of data at the same time. Another consumer use of the phrase is in home sales, with real-estate brokers pointing to bathroom details—sunken tubs, saunas, gold-plated faucets—as hot buttons that lure buyers into closing a deal. (A gold-plated knob that causes cold water to flow from the faucet can be called a hot button, but may confuse the user.)

The columnist Ann Landers was bombarded with mail in 1984 after wondering in print whether women preferred cuddling and tender stroking to the sex act. "Apparently I had touched a hot button," she said, and Time magazine in 1985 agreed: "The Landers survey appeared to have touched a hot button among sex therapists...." Today, the term is used more frequently as a modifier than as a noun, and has its most frequent play in politics, but the noun is still used to mean "exposed nerve" generally; in the magazine Manhattan Inc., a subhead in a story about the MacNeil-Lehrer report on public television read, "Comparisons with Nightline are a hot button among the staff."

A hot-button issue (the compound, used adjectivally, requires the hyphen) is one that causes anger, fear, passionate support or active loathing in potential voters. It is usually, though not always, an issue concerning the values held or the way one's personal life is to be lived, rather than an issue idealized by political scientists as "substantive."

It is replacing, perhaps temporarily, gut issue; like that predecessor phrase, its meaning can include bread-and-butter issue and unspoken issue. A hot-button issue is more specific than switcher issue, which is a position that, taken alone, can cause some voters to change candidates. Paramount issue is obsolete. The issues, a phrase usually pronounced in a censorious or whining tone, means "serious policy matters that should be debated rather than the sensationalist subjects that the candidates, pollsters and media editors have decided interest most voters."

However, there's a note at the end asserting that the term does not come from marketing, but from psychotherapy:

I think the term hot button comes from psychotherapy, not marketing. In What Do You Say After You Say Hello?, published in 1972, Eric Berne, the originator of transactional analysis, defines button as an "internal or external stimulus which turns on scripty or gamy behavior."

The earliest usage of the phrase I could find was from a magazine published in 1956

From Kiplinger's Personal Finance, Feb 1956:

Once you are inside, don't, above all, sell the product; only amateurs do that. Sell what the product does. The customer knows an adding machine can add. Show him how it will cut his costs, get his work done more quickly, more economically, more accurately. He will be interested in that. Every prospect, says Jack Lacy, has a "hot button—something that will respond instantly to the touch if you can find it. Press that button, and you're in."

Lacy tells of the owner of a leading West Coast women's specialty shop who wouldn't buy a new billing machine. The one he had was ancient, but it did the work. "Who cares how the bills are printed," asked the proprietor, "as long as they're paid?"

The man, however, was intensely proud of the swank appearance of his shop. The salesman sold him a new machine by convincing him that the decrepit model was a disgrace to the store. "That man's pride in his store was his motivating 'hot button,'" Lacy says.

[There are, of course, earlier instances of the term being used, either in snippet views (verifying the date of publication is an issue, however) or verbal form (not recorded as a written work).]

Most notably, the term was used by Jack Lacy (one of the best-known freelance professional sales trainer since World War II) in one, or few, of his lectures about salesmanship in, what I assume, the 1940s. Since Jack Lacy discovered the techniques of "hot button salesmanship", it is likely that Jack Lacy was indeed the originator of the metaphorical hot button.


But why use hot and button?

According to Merriam Webster, a button is:

: a hidden sensitivity that can be manipulated to produce a desired response
// knows how to push my buttons

Which is essentially a sort of trigger. And hot refers to the emotional reaction (which can vary depending on the context; anger, frustration, excited [with anger], etc.) that the button, when pushed, will trigger. In other words, a hot button is an emotional trigger.

  • In a psychological point of view:

    Hot buttons are the behaviors exhibited by others that "push your buttons" and often result in a reaction that you regret later. During challenging and uncertain times, the smallest disturbance or stressful situation may evoke an emotional reaction.

    (Source)

  • In a political point of view:

    A hot-button issue (the compound, used adjectivally, requires the hyphen) is one that causes anger, fear, passionate support or active loathing in potential voters.

  • In a marketing point of view:

    A hot button is a cue that triggers an emotion in a prospective buyer that causes that person to buy that product. It's a cue that causes a person to buy something or to execute some action–like purchasing something you're selling.

    (Source)


Here's a well-explained meaning of hot button from The Skilled Facilitator: [...] by Roger M. Schwarz:

A hot button is a characteristic or situation that has a particularly strong meaning for you and that leads you to respond defensively. For some people, a hot button might be perceiving they are not afforded the respect, deference, or attention they believe they deserve. Other people have a hot button pushed when they believe someone is questioning their ability, commitment, intelligence, or integrity. For still others, it is being manipulated or otherwise controlled. Because your own hot buttons lead you to misperceive others' remarks and actions, you often respond ineffectively even if others have acted effectively.

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    A film shown at various local Red Cross organizations in 1944 to help in fund raising offered "seven basic rules of salesmanship," according to articles that appeared in several local papers. #5 of these was "press extra hard on the 'hot' button (the point that bring best reaction from prospect." "Women's Club Hears About Selling and World Affairs at Meeting." Stillwater (OK) Daily News-Press, March 9, 1944, p5
    – Ken Liss
    Jul 9, 2022 at 13:13
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According to the Grammarist “hot button” is a metaphor used by American marketers to denote consumers most desired items:

Hot button is an American term that first appeared in the 1970s.

Marketers used hot button to describe the desire or need that a product would fulfill and thereby entice a consumer to buy that product.

The assumption is that the advertising devised by the marketers would “push” that button and impel the consumer to by the product.

By the 1980s the term hot button came to be used to describe political issues, and the meaning evolved to mean a controversial and emotional issue. Hot button is a noun, when used as an adjective before a noun the word is hyphenated as in hot-button.

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  • The OP already know how the word is used. The question was about the connection between this, obviously metaphorical, use and the literal meaning of the phrase. The third paragraph of the quotation arguably explains the role of button in the metaphor, but not the role of hot.
    – jsw29
    Jul 8, 2022 at 15:27
  • @jsw29 - I suggest you read my answer again.
    – user 66974
    Jul 8, 2022 at 17:34
  • I have; there is nothing in it about the difference between hot and cold buttons. Buttons, in the literal sense, normally have the same temperature as the surrounding space, so an explanation is needed of what it is for a button to be hot, as opposed to cold or lukewarm.
    – jsw29
    Jul 8, 2022 at 20:57
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  1. A button that does something of large consequence and is energized, ready to go, safety catches disabled.
  2. A combination of a "hot topic" or "hot item" with the accuracy phase "Hit it right on the button".
  3. Clothing fresh from the dryer or being ironed has hot buttons that can touch sensitive skin.
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    It would be nice to see some evidence to support one or all of these as the origin of the phrase. Jul 8, 2022 at 9:48

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