I have found that advertisers have finally picked up on some phrases that I discovered well over 30 years ago. These are ways to subtly insult someone, or denigrate them or disparage their achievements, and get away with it.
1.) In 1980 the famed actor and movie star Jimmy Cagney was asked what he thought of President Jimmy Carter. "He tries," said Cagney, "he tries."
Now, aint that a wonderful way to put someone down? "He tries". The implication is that he tries but doesn't succeed. He tries and fails. Talk about damning someone with faint praise.
Yet nobody could sue you for saying, "He tries." It's a true statement, after all. All successful people "try". Yet saying, "you tried" implies both that you didn't succeed and also that nobody really expects too much from you. You tried.
2.) I heard Clint Eastwood say this in his address to the Republican Party convention 2012: "They're not always hotdogging it." Now there's an expression you can use to denigrate anyone's accomplishments. "You're hotdogging it!" For example, a hypothetical: Somebody beats you in a foot race. This runner crosses the finish line first, well ahead of you. Instead of being polite and congratulating him/her for winning the race, you say,
"s/he is always HOTDOGGING IT." Admittedly, that is an extreme example. It works better with more minor accomplishments, e.g., someone does the dishes you left in the sink. So you say, " I could have done the dishes myself; you're always HOTDOGGING IT."
This is also a good excuse for your own failures. Why didn't you get good grades in school? Answer: "I wasn't hotdogging it."
3.) Use the word "even" to subtly insult people. I got this from the book "The MacIntosh Way" by the brilliant Guy Kawasaki. [NOTE: This is NOT plagiarism as I have attributed my source and cited the originator of this insight: Mr. Guy Kawasaki. I have quoted with attribution and given credit where it is due.] You can use the word "even" to make a trivial lapse sound like a grave offense. An example:
"He didn't EVEN take out the garbage." "He didn't EVEN fill the gas tank." Again, these are minor offenses but by inserting the word "even" it makes them sound like major crimes.
a.) A subset would be to use the word "yet" which is, in some ways, similar to "even." For example, "He has yet to master the basic grammar of Spanish." This implies that there is something wrong with the student. He can't figure things out and is none too smart. Using "yet" as a variant of "even" allows you to not over-use the word "even."
4.) Use the phrase "good sport." The phrase "good sport" implies that the subject is a loveable loser who everybody picks on but who stoically accepts it because it is just his lot in life. Example: "Well, Sean, it was nice having you in class and you've been a good sport." Calling someone a "good sport" implies that s/he is a LOSER because you don't call someone who just won the Super Bowl a "good sport."
5.) Another way to get away with a put down is to use the word "opportunistic" or call someone "an opportunist." After all, everyone is looking for an opportunity; it is not false or defamatory to say someone is "an opportunist". Just ask them under oath, "Would you seek out a good opportunity? You would? Well then, you're an opportunist!" The word connotes undue ambition and a certain grasping, grabbing quality.
6.) I've added another one: use the word "unironically." Note, I said, "UN-ironically" not "ironically". I got the word "unironically" from the novel "Infinite Jest" by David Foster Wallace. Using "unironically" is a sly way to take back a compliment. For example, you could say, "That's a very good looking necktie you're wearing, and I mean that unironically." [The necktie wearer thinks to himself/herself, "Wait a minute. What's IRONIC about saying my neckite looks good?"] Or another example, "You know, you're a very intelligent man, and I mean that UNironically." Again, what's ironic in the first place about calling someone intelligent? It slyly takes back the compliment. One can go on and on: "You're a good writer, and I mean that unironically"; "you're looking quite svelte, and I mean that unironically", etc.
7.) Here's another: When someone tells you where s/he lives, you respond with the question, "Oh, is that because of your work?" The implication is that nobody would willfully live in such a lousy neighborhood unless s/he absolutely had to. Hence, you are subtly insulting them (and getting away with it!) by implying they live in a lousy neighborhood. If one lives in a really nice neighborhood, like Beverly Hills or Malibu, you would never say s/he lived there only because they had no other choice. But with some other place, asking, "Oh, do you live there because of your work?" implies that nobody would want to live there unless their work demanded it.