I tend to use swear words quite liberally (though I hope not gratuitously) in Velocity’s own marketing; but I very rarely recommend it for client work – with maybe one or two exceptions a year.
That got me thinking:
When is it okay to use swear words in marketing and when is it not?
Putting aside knee-jerk reactions (in either direction), how might profanity work for a brand and what exactly are the penalties?
Even if you would never swear in person much less in marketing, exploring these questions might be interesting to you – because the discussion is really about the power of words, the boundaries of brand and the odd implications of taboo.
It’s also about what marketing looks like when you suspend the rules (at least as a thought experiment) – and that ought to be of interest to anyone who wants to make marketing that doesn’t shout, “MARKETING!”.
What this is not about.
Let’s start by separating out two issues that would pollute this discussion if we didn’t exclude them right up front:
The moral issue
If you feel swearing is immoral, then of course you shouldn’t do it. This post is for people who don’t feel it’s a moral issue at all, just a question of effectiveness. I’m one of these, but then I travel in some dubious circles (including Velocity Fridays at the Red Cow).
The lazy writing issue
I also want to exclude the lazy or show-offy swearing that characterises poor writing or speaking.
This kind of writing is not shitty because it uses the word shit, it’s shitty because it’s shitty.
If your argument against swearing is really about, ‘Those people who say ‘fucking’ every other word’, I agree. That fucking would fucking be fucking annoying. Worse, it’s lazy and tells your reader that you don’t care, have no talent, or both (as all lazy writing or speech does).
So, putting aside moral objections and excluding bad writing, can swearing be consciously deployed to make your marketing more effective? Is there a place for the judicious use of relevant swear words in well-crafted content?
I think there is. But not for many brands and not for many situations.
The upside: what shit and fuck can do for you.
At Velocity, we do occasionally use swear words in our blog and in our content. Okay, more than occasionally.
But people who see me as a Tourettes-addled boor might be surprised to hear that whenever I use a swear word, I do stop and think, “Do I need this or would a more mainstream word be just as good?” And, not uncommonly, I choose to stick with the ‘bad’ word. Here are some of the reasons why:
It carries the power of surprise.
Swear words are surprising in a marketing context and surprising audiences is one of our most important and toughest challenges. When people are marketed to, they put up that invisible, anti-spin force-field to resist the charms of the wicked hype-meisters (as, let’s face it, they have good reason to do). When marketing looks, smells and tastes like marketing, the force-field stays up. But when it doesn’t look, smell and taste like marketing – when it surprises – the force-field comes down and the reader leans forward just a bit. That’s good.
Of course, swearing is not the only way to surprise. But at a time when swearing still feels strange in a marketing context, it carries this power. And it’s one of the reasons that “Buy More Beef You Bastards” (by a beef promotion board in Australia) is one of my all-time favourite headlines.
It signals confidence.
Swearing in marketing is not for the timid. So swearing says, “We’re not rule-bound. We’re confident enough to break some rules and ignore taboos.”
And since confidence is one of the most important messages you can ever send to a prospect, anything that signals confidence is worth considering. (We even wrote an ebook about it called “The Other C-Word: What Makes Great Marketing Great”. In it, we argue that the best marketing in the world has only one thing in common: it’s confident).
Again, swearing is far from the only way to signal confidence. But since it’s still a rarely-used technique, it can carry this message.
It sends a signal to like-minded people.
The very willingness to swear is a signal that you’re not trying to be all things to all people. Here’s how that works for us:
As well as targeting a tight demographic (senior marketers in B2B companies) Velocity targets a very specific psychographic profile as well: confident, ambitious marketers who have enough of a power base to be change agents in their companies. These people tend to be straight-talking, unpretentious people who don’t need to play the corporate status card to be effective.
They also tend to be far less sensitive to profanity than the general population. So when we swear, we may alienate the fuck-averse, but we’re also sending out pheromones to our kind of people. And in a business that depends on close working relationships over long periods of time, this matching is hugely important.
To us, it’s not only okay to alienate people who would hate working with us – it’s an important part of our marketing strategy.
No, it’s not infallible. There are confident, ambitious marketers out there who just don’t like swearing or people who swear. We hope they’ll look past our potty mouth problem but they may not. That’s the unfortunate penalty we pay for the benefits of the pheromone thing. Is it worth it? We’ll never know. There’s no control group. But on balance it feels like a good call.
It’s signals authenticity.
We’re just sweary people. We’re not mean or crass or insensitive (I hope). Sometimes, we just swear. In our world, that’s no big deal. It feels natural.
If we lived in some other parts of the world, our swearing would mark us as rebels or angry or ‘of poor breeding’. But in our world, it doesn’t carry these connotations.
So when we write how we speak, we’re being ourselves. And that comes across.
Caveat: if you don’t swear normally, you probably shouldn’t swear in your marketing. It’s like Dad dancing. As a Dad, I can promise you: nobody wants to see that.
Precisely because these words are transitioning out of taboo, they can punch up a punchline. When they’re used out of their usual context or by someone you don’t expect to swear – kids, grannies, robots, butlers, brands – it can be inherently funny.
I think the headline to this post is kind of funny because it starts off sounding like a standard marketing blog post, then takes a turn. De-fucking the headline would make it not just less funny but not funny.
No, not all marketing needs to be funny. But some of the best is — and sometimes swearing can help.
It adds passion.
Let’s face it, ‘fucking awesome’ is more awesome than just plain ‘awesome’. Not if you use it too much, but in the right places, it can really signal unbridled enthusiasm. And unbridled enthusiasm kicks bridled enthusiasm’s ass.
It signals writing with a voice.
This is important. Most writing has no real voice. It’s just beige, neutral blather that might say interesting things but does so in very uninteresting ways. That sucks.
People love writing that has a strong voice. So swearing says to people, “You’re more likely to enjoy reading this than that boring eBook you downloaded this morning.”
If there were no downside, these benefits would add up to a pretty compelling argument – and we would all be swearing in our marketing a lot more than we do.
But of course, there is a downside.
The downside: why the fuck would you ever say fuck?
You do pay a penalty every time you use a swear word in your marketing. The only question is how big that penalty is. Here are some of the bad consequences:
You risk looking like a crass bastard.
To some people, swearing is what crass, uneducated people do. People who were raised by smokers and now own maybe more than one pit bull. If you’re okay with that, go wild.
But the key here is ‘some people’. To many others, swearing is not synonymous with crass. So you need to think about your audience: are they likely to like or respect you less if you swear? Would it be harder to build a brand if you turn them off, or would it be no big deal?
It’s almost definitely off-brand.
There aren’t many brands that can comfortably swear without breaking a brand value or two. In truth, I believe there are many more that could get away with it than that actually do it. But don’t hold your breath for “Nike. Just fucking do it.” or “McDonald’s. I’m fuckin’ lovin’ it.”
You might not get as many shares.
Even people who don’t mind swearing might not want to share your profanity-bejewelled content with their friends, followers and circles (wusses). I think some of our stuff has suffered from this – but hey, we’re still here.
You will have to defend yourself inside your company.
Most people in your company will think it’s a very bad idea to swear in your marketing. They may be wrong but you’re probably going to have to raise your head above the cubicle and spend a lot of time explaining your reasoning to them. That’s a pain in the ass and you probably have better things to do. (You could try sending them a link to this post but it won’t work: people who are determined to make marketing that looks like marketing just can’t stomach marketing that doesn’t – the best stuff, generally).
Of course, if you own (or co-own) the company, fuck ’em. And, in this case, I fucking co-own the company.
What isn’t on the list of downsides
One thing I did not put on the list of downsides is this:
It will offend people.
I actually don’t think swearing does offend people. It may alienate them but does it really cause offence? Can any adult in the Western world be offended by naughty words? If so, they probably struggle to go out in public most days.
In truth, “I’m offended by that,” usually means, “I like you less for saying that.” Which is covered by the ‘crass bastard’ point above.
If you really are offended by profanity the way, say, I’m offended by racist language. Then I guess you have the duty to speak out against me. But I may not change – the right to not be offended is not yet in any Bill of Rights that I subscribe to.
Yesterday’s fuck is tomorrow’s damn
The reason swearing carries so much power is that every swear word is somewhere on the continuum from Taboo (e.g. C*nt, the last really taboo swear word ) through Sweary (Shit and Fuck) to Weak-ass (Damn, Hell, Crap, Ass, Bastard and, arguably, Dick). (I just typed a sentence with ‘arguably, Dick’ in it. I love my job).
See the uni-directional trend here? Our swear words are all marching into the mainstream, one edgy mini-series at a time.
As a word transitions out of taboo and into the mainstream, it has unique powers that other words don’t have. If you care about words, you’re going to be tempted by that. (The words just moving into the mainstream are your sweet-spot swear words. If you’re going to swear, start with these puppies.)
This, of course, implies impact inflation. Words that used to be an 8 on the Richter Scale are now a 3. So to go to 8 you need to roll out the bigger guns. Hell just ain’t gonna cut it.
What about public speaking?
I’ve always been uncomfortable about the concept of a ‘personal brand’ but I grudgingly admit that some people do have them. Whether you swear or not — in public speaking or blogs or whatever – will come down to how you feel about yours.
Some people can pull it off in style. Can you imagine Gary Vaynerchuck or Ash Ambirge without swearing? Or George Carlin? Or Richard Pryor? (Admittedly, if you’ve been caught running down the street in the flames from your exploded crack pipe, swearing is probably not a significant threat to your personal brand).
My pal (actually everybody’s pal but my special pal) Ann Handley decided not to use a funny quote with the word ‘Fuck’ in it for a presentation at Content Marketing World last year. I urged her to go for it, which, admittedly, may have tipped the scales against. Was she just being chicken or was she being sensitive to her audience of Ann-fans? On this, I should probably defer to someone with 1.8 fazillion twitter followers and two best-selling books. But instead I will waggle my elbows and shriek, “Bgaaaawk!!!”.
In my own public speaking, I find it very hard not to swear. Maybe it’s because I get nervous. (I’d prefer to believe it’s because I get passionate about what I’m saying – but I’m a notorious self-deceiver). I also swear too much in meetings. Even I wish I didn’t. (Before meetings with some clients, one of our account directors always says to me, “Whatever you do, don’t be yourself.“)
Horses for courses on this one:
In a recent blog post, Jason Miller, (LinkedIn’s head of content marketing and author of the excellent “Welcome to the Funnel“) asks, Is it OK to Drop the F-Bomb during a Keynote? Jason used a ‘bad word’ in a speech and got a negative review (among many positive ones). He makes the point that his style is not for everyone and he’s okay with that. (But then Jason wears a wristband that says ‘WWGSD?’ for “What Would Gene Simmons Do?” so do take that into account).
On the other hand, Scott Hanselman (“speaker, consultant, father, diabetic, and Microsoft employee”) is convinced that Profanity Doesn’t Work in conferences or in any business communication. (I’m not sure which role in his bio leads most directly to this conclusion but I’m guessing it’s “Microsoft employee”).
So should you swear in your public speaking? Only if it works and it feels right.
Alternatives for when you really want to swear but just can’t bring yourself to do it.
Some people just love the idea of swearing but can’t pull the trigger. These turn out to be resourceful people, because they’ve come up with lots of clever options:
F*ck and Sh*t are just a flat-out lame options for total p*ssies. I think Louis C.K. said something like, “If you want to put the word ‘fuck’ into somebody’s head, nothing beats the word ‘fuck’”. I’m with Mr C.K. on this.
(You may have noticed that I resorted to the asterisk dodge when using the C-word a few paragraphs earlier. But that’s because my wife insisted. I argued that using a word when discussing it is surely a legitimate use. She argued that it’s often used as a sexist slur and is never okay. Who do you think is right? (Hint: It’s usually her.)).
Bastardizations like ‘Effing’, ‘Freaking’ and ‘Frigging’ have the benefit of maintaining the meter and rhythm of the word they’re replacing. But they also make you sound like someone who needs to take a pee* but hasn’t got permission. Using these replacements bring too much attention to the whole thing. Might as well skip it. (His publisher made Norman Mailer replace ‘fucking’ with ‘fugging’ throughout his novel, The Naked and the Dead. How embarrassing is that? And how weird to try to read.)
(*’pee’, of course, is a euphemism for ‘piss’ and could therefore be included in the next alternative:)
F-bomb and c-word
See F*ck and Sh*t, above.
Rhymes and homophones
Ducking. Sugar. Fudge.
See F-bomb and c-word, above. These aren’t just euphemisms, they’re babyisms.
If you say, ‘Sugar!’ when you stub your toe, you are 96 times more likely than the general population to teach Sunday school and knit covers for toilet rolls. That’s fine. You gotta be you. But do NOT expect to get laid any time soon.
(Though I love, love, love K-mart’s “Ship My Pants!” commercial. It’s funny, of course, not because it swears but because it appears to swear. But even playing with the idea of swearing in a commercial for a major brand would have been unthinkable even a few years ago. The lesson: if Kmart can do this, anybody can do this).
Go soft core
Yeah, okay – but ‘give a shit’ is way more emphatic than ‘give a damn’. There is a place for soft-core swearing but I always feel that if you’ve come so far, just gall-darn go for it. (See? A demonstration is worth a dozen bullet points).
Ask forgiveness, then swear
“Pardon my French but PowerPoint fucking sucks.” This has a weird kind of cake-and-eat-it-too appeal but I can’t seem to pull it off. I hate asking for pardon when I don’t really mean it.
Swear, then ask forgiveness
“PowerPoint fucking sucks, pardon my French.” The horse has bolted, dude. Fuck the stable door.
The bottom line:
Some of these ingenious work-arounds will indeed work some of the time. But most fall under ‘attempts to have it both ways’ and, to me, they tend to fail. If you find yourself using them, maybe it’s time to person up.
A friend asked me to think up some rough creative ideas for a new company that makes amazing speakers. He gave a me a pair to try out at home, with my own favourite music, and the first words out of my mouth were, “Holy. Fucking. Shit.”
Great headline, right?
Well, I thought so.
To me, it captures that moment when you hear music you love, played on great speakers for the first time. It’s how audiophiles really do talk to each other. It’s confident. And it’s funny – especially when there’s no other copy except for the company name (blocked out here to protect… well, me). If I saw this in a magazine, I’d call Stan over and say, “Check this out.” (How often do ads make you do that?).
Did they run it?
They did not. And I think they missed an opportunity.
A last word on Anatomy-based swear words.
Swear words that started as vulgar slang for body parts seem to have their own connotations:
‘Pussy’ or ‘twat ‘for ‘vagina’ are both ugly words when you really are referring to a vagina. But if you’re using them to refer to a wimp or a jerk, they can do the trick nicely.
‘Tits’ for ‘breasts’ is juvenile. ‘Tit’ to refer to a self-important person is funny.
‘Asshole’ for ‘anus’ is crass. ‘Asshole’ for Donald Trump is just precision.
‘Dick’ for ‘penis’ is high schooly. For any Fox TV pundit, it’s taxonomically sound.
Okay — your turn. What do you think of all this?
Do you ever swear in your company marketing?
How about your own blog posts or speaking gigs?
How do you feel when others swear in their marketing?
Was my wife right about the C-word or should I have used it without the asterisk?
Did this post make you like me less (or had you already bottomed out on that front)?
Next week: The Bodily Functions and Secretions (or maybe not)
Further Reading or Listening:
Stephen Fry’s Planet Word episode on swearing – a terrific analysis (thanks for this Irene Triendl). Love this quote:
“When uttered at the right moment, a rude word can bring an otherwise dull and lifeless sentence dramatically to life. In the distinctly un-amusing world of humour research this is known as a ‘jab line’.” Amen.
Steven Pinker’s short book, ‘The Seven Words You Can’t Say on Television’ – a fun, super-smart analysis (Thanks again, Irene, for this one)
The Periodic Table of Swearing – Just plain fun
The Wikipedia entry on the word Fuck – a hoot but a scholarly hoot
Louis C.K. on using the N-word – O.M.G.
George Carlin’s 7 Dirty Words routine – the man, in a classic monologue
AnswerThePublic’s map of search questions about swearing – a really cool keyphrase tool
Words that the Advertising Standards Authority allows – and doesn’t allow (Thanks Tom Albrighton)
A wise man going through all the uses of the word ‘fuck’ – thanks for this one Bob Apollo
Uses of the Word Fuck – By Jack Wagner, the ‘Voice of Disneyland’ (Do NOT, under any circumstances, tell Goofy).
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