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Swear words in advertising

Woman sticking up one middle finger to the camera - the non-verbal way of swearing

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Why read this? : Using swear words in advertising creates a dilemma. You might offend and lose some customers. But you might gain others by making your brand sound more human. Read our guide to learn when swearing is and isn’t a good idea. Ya nosy bugger, ya. 

What do “bugger”, “shit”, “pissed-off”, “crap”, “bloody”, “cheap bastard”, “bum” and “balls” all have in common?

Well, no, they’re not the various stages of denial of Covid-19‘s impact on businesses. Nor are they what we say out loud during an average Twitter session.

In fact, these are the words The Australian Association of National Advertisers Code of Conduct deem as “words and phrases which are innocuous and in widespread and common use in the Australian vernacular”. 

Woman sticking up one middle finger to the camera - the non-verbal way of swearing

So, basically, acceptable (by Australian standards) swear words in advertising.

On the flip slide, the “f” and “c” words generally aren’t permitted. This includes non-verbal representations of the “f” word. But words and acronyms which play on the ‘f’ word, e.g. WTF and LMFAO, but don’t use the actual word are OK in certain circumstances.

Interesting.

But given a blog post isn’t advertising, we feel OK to choose from ALL the swear words on offer. 

Even more so, given we’ve just added a new resource for conference call bingo. The bingo sheets have both a SFW, non-sweary version and a NSFW, sweary version. No “c” words but 5 “f” words, and a bastard, dickhead, twat. Oh, and a couple of wankers.

So swear words are quite top of mind for us at the moment. And given the challenge of trying to work around pandemic restrictions, pretty sure we’re not the only ones. 

The dilemma of swearing

Whether to use swear words in advertising creates an interesting copywriting dilemma. 

On the one hand, you want to grow your business. That means aiming for a large audience. The larger the audience, the more potential customers, right?

But large audiences also have a larger range of things that’ll offend them.

So, often when you aim for a large audience, you steer away from anything which might offend some of them. And that includes swearing. 

You never see mega-brands like Disney, Apple or Coke using swear words in advertising, for example. Snow bloody White is never going to pick up a buggered i-Phone, and drink another shitty Diet Coke in an advert, for example.

Though we’d love to see THAT ad!

Swearing is real-life

But your advertising also has to reflect real life. And for many people, swearing is part of real life.

Swear words tap into deep emotions, rooted deep in our brains and our culture. We read recently for example, that dementia sufferers still swear even if they have other speech-related challenges

Swearing is visceral, emotional and genuine. Those might well relate to values in your brand identity. And you may want your marketing communications to showcase them. 

Man in a red T-shirt looking frustrated and angry

Think about the situations where you’re more likely to swear. Meditating? Reading a book? Watching Masterchef? No. You don’t swear when you’re calm.

Swearing in front of strangers or in formal situations is pretty rare too. You hardly ever hear people swear in focus groups, for example. And in creative review meetings, the swearing normally happens before and after, but rarely during the meeting.  

But late for an appointment because that dickhead driver in front is going too slowly? Getting pissed off with being hassled by social media “expert” stalkers? Or reading Trump’s latest fucking insane Twitter post?

Swear words feel right when your emotions kick in. Of course, they fucking do.

Those situations incite your emotions. Swear words connect strongly to human emotions. That’s where the use of swear words in advertising gets interesting. 

When used well, swear words stand out. They make you stop and pause. They connect with people when they recognise the emotions behind the context. Swear words do all the things you want your brand message and your advertising copy to do.

But.

They’re swear words. 

Shit.

Swear words in advertising

Having read the whole Australian Association of National Advertisers code of ethics, it takes a surprisingly pragmatic view of the realities of both advertising and Australian culture. 

We can sum this up in 5 words. “Do not be a dickhead”.

First, avoid deliberately misleading people.

Next, avoid obvious discrimination or vilification based on race, gender, ethnicity, nationality, sexual preference, disability or religious and political views.

And finally, take care around what you do in advertising to children.

It would be too much to expect everyone to have the common sense to follow these basic principles all the time. Some people just get a kick out of breaking the rules, after all. 

But we hope we don’t offend when we say anyone who doesn’t understand these principles of not being a dickhead, is clearly defining themselves as a dickhead

However, while there are many offensive words associated with discrimination or vilification which we won’t repeat here, those aren’t the same words as your basic go-to list of swear words. 

Arseholes are arseholes, whatever their race, gender, ethnicity, nationality, sexual preference, disability or religious and political view. 

How brands can use swearing

So, if swear words tap into deep emotions and that’s what you want in your advertising, how can brands use that to their advantage? 

For us, it means going back to the basics of advertising copywriting. Put simply, it’s about understanding the customer and being true to your brand identity and positioning

Know your audience

If a large part of your target audience is offended by swear words in advertising, then of course, don’t swear. And yes, some people are offended by all types of swearing all the time.

But for MOST people, it’s a question of context. And, that’s where the opportunity for advertisers lies. 

Parents don’t want their kids exposed to swear words, for example. Bad context. 

But that moment when your kids smear sticky jam all over your expensive new cream sofa?

Person holding glasses in front of them against a blurry street background

If you see an advert for a product which shows you how to clear up after those messy little fuckers, that sounds about right. Good context. 

And let’s imagine your target audience are business professionals like doctors, teachers or lawyers. (For example, see our B2B CRM article). For this audience, where content is factual and formal, swear words don’t really work. Bad context. 

But an advert which shows the moment that patient, pupil or client totally ignores the advice you’ve given them and does something completely stupid instead? It might bloody well make sense to add some swearing there. Good context. 

If you’re a coffee shop or cafe where people go to hang out and meet friends (at socially acceptable distances), you don’t want to be surrounded by a profusion of profanity. Bad context. 

But a description of your coffee as damn good. As better than the crap they serve at Starbucks. (Side note : we have no idea why Australia finds Starbucks coffee so bad, but they do). Perfectly acceptable. Good context. 

Knowing your audience means you know how they’ll react to the context of where and when you interact with them. You’ll know whether swearing is a good or bad idea for your brand.

Be relevant to your brand identity and positioning

Your choice of whether to use swearing in advertising at all, and if so, how often and when is driven by your brand identity

Brands which actively choose to push boundaries and be challenging can apply that to their use of swear words in advertising. If you’re a brand with a rebellious, challenging or maverick brand essence or personality, then you’re almost obliged to use swear words in advertising. No one’s surprised if Harley-Davidson swears. But it would feel very odd from BMW. They have different positioning

Alcohol brands, especially those tied to on-trade occasions e.g. tequila brands, can get away with using swearing in advertising in the venue. But soft drink brands, probably not. 

And marketing agencies with big national clients who advertise regularly on TV and who have corporate reputations to protect? Unlikely to use many swear words in advertising.

But smaller, more maverick marketing coaches? Well, they should probably swear a lot more fucking often. 

If you could make advertising more sweary?

Let’s end with 3 categories, where we could see swearing actually working. Cars, alcohol and marketing agencies. The target audience are adults, so no worries about kids seeing the ads. Imagine these scenes :-

Ad 1 : Cars

Married couple get into a Tesla. The woman’s driving, because you know, equality and all that. She switches to ludicrous mode and 2.8 seconds later, the car is at 60mph. As the man peels his face off the windscreen,

Fuck, that’s fast.” 

Ad 2 : Beer

It’s a dark dingy bar, way past the witching hour. Two worse-for-wear guys are eyeing up an attractive-looking couple of girls at the other end of the bar. Guy #1 wanders over, to the girls, and says something we can’t hear. The girls shake their heads, laugh and then walk off. Guy #1 comes back.

Yeah, totally fucked it. Two more Heinekens please mate”.

Ad 3 : Marketing agency

A cafe owner is sitting at the counter flicking through Facebook on her phone. Close up and she stops on an ad for a marketing agency. “Fed up with all those marketing agencies who claim they have a surefire way to drive more traffic, raise your SEO, boost your social presence, raise sales, cure cancer and rid the world of Donald Trump? Yeah, we’re sick of that shit too.”

Cut back to the cafe owner.

Finally, someone who gets me. Thank fuck.”

Conclusion - a final word on swearing

For us, swearing in advertising comes down to this.

Don’t swear for the sake of swearing, or just because you think it’ll grab attention. That’s just bloody lazy.  

And if it doesn’t fit the context of your audience and brand, probably best to avoid it. Once it’s out there, you can’t take it back. And there are plenty of other words in the dictionary. 

But for some brands, swearing is going to work really fucking well. 

A woman with a finger over her mouth making the shhhh signal

Good use of swearing in advertising reflects emotions. The way people really feel. That can be very powerful when well used in advertising. 

Moving back to real life again and away from advertising, you should also check out those new Conference Call Bingo sheets we just added. Particularly, given how much we rely on conference calls and video calls at the moment. 

You can play the SFW version which is all the things people say during a call. Think of this as the equivalent of the “safe”, non-sweary approach to writing we’ve covered above. Or there’s the NSFW version. With all the things you typically THINK during the business purgatory that is a conference call. 

We know which one’s more fun to play. And we’re damn sure you do too. 

Check out our brand identity and advertising guides to see the non-sweary context behind this article. Or, of course, you can always email us with our damn contact form. 

Photo Credits

Woman giving the finger : Photo by engin akyurt on Unsplash

Frustrated Man : Photo by Usman Yousaf on Unsplash

Glasses : Photo by Josh Calabrese on Unsplash

Coffee Shop : Photo by The Creative Exchange on Unsplash

Quiet – Shhh! : Photo by Kristina Flour on Unsplash

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6 thoughts on “Swear words in advertising”

  1. Could you please share some examples of brands who have used profanity other than Burger King, KFC and FCUK? I am researching on the topic. Would appreciate your help. Thanks!

    1. hello@three-brains.com

      Hey there!

      Thanks for this, interesting question.

      Most mainstream brands (like the ones you mention) typically only imply profanity, rather than overtly use it – so, this AAMI (Australian Insurance) advert called Up Ship Creek for example (implying up sh*t creek obviously) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RHQ1F8yJOzE.

      You have to look at more start-up / entrepreneurial brands who often build profanity into their brand identity, so it’s in all of their advertising my default – so three examples we know include Who Gives a Crap?, a toilet-paper non-profit organisation (https://au.whogivesacrap.org), Fat Bastard wines (https://www.fatbastard.com) and Shit the Bed hot sauce (https://www.bunstersworldwide.com.au).

      It’d also be worth checking out “challenger brands”, based on the work of Adam Morgan and the team at Eat the Big Fish – https://www.eatbigfish.com – the irreverent maverick style (like Brew Dog beer in the UK) lends itself to be comfortable using profanity, you can probably find some more examples with brands that define themselves that way.

      Best of luck with your research!

      The team @three-brains

  2. I disagree that these swear words are still in Ads on the TV. My grandchildren,Daren heard the word and said ‘ nanny that is a swear word and we don’t like swear words’ I may be old but I do. To what a swear word is and I don’t like hearing it on the TV during ads.

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