Is Swearing the Secret to Better Marketing?
*Disclaimer: this article contains swearing in abundance. Please look away now if you’re easily offended.
You’ve probably noticed that there’s a little more swearing on LinkedIn lately. Perhaps we’ve all let our guard down during the pandemic. Maybe we’re going for the shock factor.
Or maybe it’s part of our branding. Are we “getting shit done” or creating “fucking good content”?
Now, don’t get me wrong. I love a good swear. How could I not when I grew up with Rik Mayall?
Better still, I was raised by remarkably honest parents. I remember at age five asking my mother: “What does cunt mean?” Don’t ask me where I picked that up. Did she jump out of her skin? No. Did she tell me it meant “a bit between a woman’s legs”? Yes!!
Recoiling in horror
That wasn’t quite the vibe throughout the entire family, you understand. Gosh. Aged 28, I foolishly posted a caption on Facebook, thanking my friends and calling them our shared term of endearment – the C-bomb.
Has my grandmother let me live it down? No. Did I forget we were friends on Facebook? Yes. Honestly. You let out one little four-letter word and you’re ostracised for life.
Perhaps that’s where my personal prudishness kicks in. I can’t help but think that swearing is all about context – and in the wrong setting, it feels…well…wrong.
Watch her recoil in horror as Mike Winnet lets out a four-letter word on our podcast.
What did I expect?! And yet, there’s a teeny tiny voice in my head that tells me it’s taboo. Apparently, I’m not alone.
Swearing is OK – in context
A fascinating 2016 Ofcom study looked at society’s attitude towards swearing on television and radio. They reached the following conclusions:
- People are most worried about protecting their children from vulgar language.
- In context, i.e. after 9pm and for violent or emotional scenes, swearing is fine.
- Over-censoring – for example, bleeping every other word – is almost as bad, as it brings more attention to it.
- Some offensive words have changed in context over time, for example, ‘loony’.
- Above all, the most offensive terms are those which offend minority groups.
Without a fucking doubt, using discriminatory language is a no-no. Even the Yorkie bar’s “not for girls” campaign was still putting people’s backs up 16 years after its inception.
So, when is it OK for brands to use a little blue language in their marketing?
Let’s ask the Advertising Standards Authority.
It’s not as black and white as you might think. In this 2019 article on profanity in advertising, they cite a few acceptable, and unacceptable, examples.
Sounding like an expletive is permissible…sometimes. The ASA says that Booking.com got away with using slogans such as “look at that booking view!”, but Sofa King’s sofa king low prices did not.
Similarly, just as TV viewers think bleeping is pointless, so too are those little asterisks. A billboard ad for Digital Mums breached the CAP Code (Edition 12) rule 4.1 – harm and offence – because it used the term “f*******” to denote “flexible”. The ASA argued that those driving past the billboard could reasonably assume the language was offensive.
Does it come down to personal choice, then? I will never tire of referencing KFC’s hilarious no-chicken-blunder, resulting in a blunt “FCK” ad. Is it the trigger of an emotional response, amusement or otherwise, that implores marketers to use four-letter words?
Why do we swear?
As it turns out, swearing actually provokes a physiological response. According to cognitive psychologist Donald MacKay, swearing triggers the amygdala, effectively “sounding the alarm” and causing us to scrutinise a situation. This might be why swearing in marketing catches our eye.
There is also evidence to suggest that intelligent people use more swear words. Researchers at the Free Thought Project assert:
The ability to make nuanced distinctions indicates the presence of more rather than less linguistic knowledge, as implied by the POV [Poverty of Vocabulary] view.
And then, as New York magazine’s Danielle Friedman puts it, swearing can make you more authentic. More empathetic. She cites a study which suggests that those who swear more often are more honest. And what’s better for marketing than a little honesty?
Why do marketers swear?
To back up these claims, I asked a few of my freelance chums.
Michelle O’Connor at Specky Scribbler backs up the theory that swearing helps us to get on side with others. I breathe an internal sigh of relief as soon as someone lets out a casual “bullshit” on a pitching call. Michelle says: “I’ve been known to swear in my meetings and on calls – not necessarily ‘fuck’ but maybe ‘shite’. I don’t know why I don’t write it because I am definitely a swearer in conversation!”
Sally Fox enjoys the odd swear in her blog posts and newsletters, saying it feels “like me”. She’s had no complaints. Meanwhile, Catherine Jones imparts her marketing wisdom: “I tend to take the lead from my audience. If they swear, I’m in.”
Striking the balance
If there’s one thing that long-suffering marketers will understand, it’s that you can’t please everybody. For me, the occasional bollock-bomb on LinkedIn won’t start World War III. If you’re trying to be edgy, however – trying too hard and polishing crap content with an abundance of swears – it’s vulgar. Not to mention, obvious.
Your vibe attracts your tribe and all that jazz. Some people will love you for your shameless fuckery. Others will run a mile. Hearteningly, for those who do set off pigeons every time they stub their toe, the British attitude is changing.
For example, swearing on air is no longer offensive to the British public. We’re more concerned about racism and sexism. Jolly good too.
To round off this cuntbuggery stream of bollocks, here are my tips from personal experience, fellow writers, and professional bodies:
- Use swearing in context – to amuse or to emphasise a point.
- Don’t swear for swearing’s sake – give it some substance, too.
- Steer away from slurs. They are never cool.
- Always run it by an industry expert if you are broadcasting!
I’d also like to point out that Word has been underlining every single swear as I write this.
Oh, f**k off.
14th April 2021