Swear words in advertising

Person sticking up one finger - the non-verbal way of swearing

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Snapshot : The use of swear words in advertising presents you with a creative and business dilemma. Use swear words and you may lose some people because you offend them. But swearing taps into deep and relevant human emotions. And in the right context, swearing makes your brand seem more relevant. Read our guide on how to make swear words work for you. Ya nosy bugger, ya. 

Is bad language good for business?

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

Well, no, they are not the various stages of denial of the impact of Covid-19 on businesses. Nor are they what we say out loud during the average ten minute trawl on Twitter.

No, these are the words which 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 are generally not permitted. This includes non verbal representations of the “f” word.

But words and acronyms that play on the ‘f’ word, e.g. WTF and LMFAO, but don’t use the actual word are OK if used in certain circumstances.

Interesting.

But given a blog post isn’t an advertisement, we feel free 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 and a couple of wankers.

So swear words are quite top of mind for us at the moment.

And for those stuck in the challenge of trying to work around all the pandemic restrictions, we’re pretty sure we’re not the only ones. 

The creative dilemma of swearing

We find this use of swear words in advertising an interesting topic because it presents a creative and business dilemma when you have to write copy. 

On the one hand, you want to grow your business. To do this, you feel you have to aim for the largest possible audience.

But the challenge with large audiences is they also have a larger range of things that’ll offend them.

So, when you aim for a large audience, you aim away from anything that might offend some people. And that includes swearing. 

You never see mega-brands like Disney or 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 bloody Diet Coke in an advert for example.

Though we’d love to see THAT ad!

Swearing is real-life

But in your advertising, you also want to reflect the real lives of your target audience.

You want your brand identity and marketing communications to be emotionally engaging.

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

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.

Man in a red T-shirt looking frustrated and angry

You also tend not to swear when you’re with strangers or in formal situations. We’ve rarely heard 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 so-called experts on social media who seem to be stalking you? Or reading Trump’s latest fucking insane post on Twitter?

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

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

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

But.

They are 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. 

Which we could basically some up in five words. : “Do not be a dickhead”.

Firstly, avoid deliberately misleading people.

Next, avoid obvious discrimination or vilification on the basis of 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 cause offence 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 that we won’t repeat here, those are not the same words as your basic raft 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 writing for advertising  that we cover in our skill guide in our writing skills section. 

Know your audience and be true to your brand identity and positioning

Know your audience

If part of your target audience is likely to be offended by swear words in advertising, then of course, don’t use swear words. And yes, there are people who are offended by all types of swearing all the time.

But for MOST people, it’s really 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 where 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 product that lets you that clear up after those messy little fuckers, that would resonate. Good context. 

But then let’s imagine your target audience are business professionals like doctors, teachers or lawyers (see for example our article on B2B CRM). For this audience, where content is factual and formal, swear words aren’t going to work well. Bad context. 

But an advert that shows that moment, when that patient, pupil or client totally ignores the advice you’ve given them and does something completely stupid instead? That would bloody well ring true. 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 tirade of profanity. Bad context. 

But a description of your coffee as damn good. As better than that 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. 

If you really know your audience, you also 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

You choice of whether to use swearing in advertising at all, and if so, how often and when can often come down to your brand identity

Brands that actively choose to push boundaries and be challenging can apply that to their use of swear words in advertising.

If you are a brand that has a rebellious, challenging or maverick brand essence or personality, then you’re almost obliged to use swearing in advertising. 

No-one would be surprised if Harley-Davidson used swearing in advertising. But it would feel very odd from BMW. Different essences and identities. 

Alcohol brands, especially those tied in to on-trade occasions, let’s say tequila brands for example, can get away with using swearing in advertising in the venue. But soft drink brands, probably not. 

And marketing and advertising agencies who have big important national clients who advertise regularly on TV and who have corporate reputations to protect? They’re unlikely to use a lot of swearing in advertising.

But smaller, more maverick marketing coaches and consultants, well, they can and probably should swear a lot more fucking often. 

If you could make advertising more sweary?

Let’s close off with three categories, where we could see swearing actually working – cars, alcohol and marketing agencies. 

The target audience in each case are all adults, so no worries on children seeing the ads. 

Imagine these ads.

Ad 1 : Cars

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

Fuck, that’s fast.” 

Ad 2 : Beer

It’s a dark dingy bar, way past the witching hour. Two guys who are the worse for wear are eyeing up an attractive looking couple of girls at the other end of the bar. Guy number 1 wanders over, to the girls, says something we can’t hear. The girls shake their heads, laugh and then walk off. Guy number 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 of all those marketing agency adverts who claim they have a sure-fire 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 cafe owner.

Finally, someone who gets me. Thank fuck.”

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.  

But, if it fits in the context of your audience and brand, give it a lot of thought. Once it’s out there, you can take it back and there’s plenty of other words in the dictionary. 

But good use of swearing in advertising can reflect the way people really feel. That can be very powerful when well used in advertising. 

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

Moving back to real-life again and away from the crazy world of advertising, you might also want to 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 that people say during a call. Think of this as the equivalent of the “safe”, non sweary approach to writing we’ve covered above. 

But then you can also play the NSFW version, Because these are all the things you typically THINK during the business purgatory that is a conference call. 

We know which one is more fun to play. 

And we’re damn sure you do too. 

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

Photo Credits 

Woman giving the finger 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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4 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. 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

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