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To put "lipstick on a pig" is a rhetorical expression, used to convey the message that making superficial or cosmetic changes is a futile attempt to disguise the true nature of a product.
Pigs have long featured in proverbial expressions: a "pig's ear," a "pig in a poke," as well as the Biblical expressions "pearls before swine" and "ring of gold in a swine's snout." Indeed, whereas the phrase "lipstick on a pig" seems to have been coined in the 20th century, the concept of the phrase may not be particularly recent. The similar expression, "You can't make a silk purse from a sow's ear" seems to have been in use by the middle of the 16th century or earlier. Thomas Fuller, the British physician, noted the use of the phrase "A hog in armour is still but a hog" in 1732, here, as the Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (1796) later noted "hog in armour" alludes to "an awkward or mean looking man or woman, finely dressed." The Baptist preacher Charles Spurgeon (1834–1892) recorded the variation "A hog in a silk waistcoat is still a hog" in his book of proverbs The Salt-Cellars (published 1887).
The "lipstick" variant of the phrase is more modern (the word "lipstick" itself was only coined in 1880). The rhetorical effect of linking pigs with lipstick was explored in 1926 by Charles F. Lummis, in the Los Angeles Times, when he wrote "Most of us know as much of history as a pig does of lipsticks." However, the first recorded uses of "putting lipstick on a pig" are later. In Stella Gibbons' Westwood (published in 1946) Hebe visits a hair salon and has her hair "contemptuously washed by Miss Susan, who had a face like a very young pig that had managed to get hold of a lipstick"
In an article in the Quad-City Herald (Brewster, Washington) from Jan. 31 1980, it was observed that "You can clean up a pig, put a ribbon on it's [sic] tail, spray it with perfume, but it is still a pig." The phrase was also reported in 1985 when The Washington Post quoted a San Francisco radio host from KNBR-AM remarking "That would be like putting lipstick on a pig" in reference to plans to refurbish Candlestick Park (rather than constructing a new stadium for the San Francisco Giants).
In May 2002, brokerage firm Charles Schwab Corporation ran a television advertisement pointing out Wall Street brokerage firms' conflicts of interest by showing an unidentified sales manager telling his salesmen, "Let's put some lipstick on this pig!" The ad appeared shortly after New York's Attorney General Eliot Spitzer announced that Merrill Lynch stock analysts had recommended stocks that they privately called "dogs." CBS refused to air the ad.
More recently, the phrase has been used in political rhetoric to criticize spin, and to insinuate that a political opponent is attempting to repackage established policies and present them as new. Victoria Clarke, who was Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs under Donald Rumsfeld, published a book about spin in politics titled Lipstick on a Pig: Winning In the No-Spin Era by Someone Who Knows the Game. The book argued, using anecdotes from her own career, that spin does not work in an age of transparency, when everyone will find out the truth anyway ("you can put lipstick on a pig, but it is still a pig").
In recent years the phrase has become common and often controversial political invective both in the United Kingdom and the United States. The expression has been used by many US politicians, including both the Democratic nominee Barack Obama and Republican nominee John McCain during the United States Presidential Election of 2008, and Vice President Dick Cheney(who called it his "favorite line").