Howling Wolfe: Does swearing work in marketing?


Howling Wolfe: Toeing the (guide)lines, stalking bad grammar and baying at the moon.

Every month our Senior Editor and Proofreader Andrew Wolfe explores areas of the written word that interest, annoy and confuse even him. Here, he explores the effectiveness of swearing in marketing.

Swearing, sex and inappropriateness in all forms of expression have a long history and have been written about extensively. A quick internet or library search (yes, I still use the library) reveals numerous titles on the subjects. Our own Lucy Coffey, an excellent writer and former Frameworker, penned an interesting blog about swearing in advertising and how to do it well.

On the rise

Risqué branding and advertising has been on the rise for years, and swearing and rudeness seem to work for some brands. It’s a response to a marketplace so cluttered that brands must shout to stand out. When that doesn’t work, some brands take the next step and use “shockvertising” to be heard above the din. Swearing can be funny, but brands must be careful not to offend when using shock tactics.

Twst that Christmas song

This past holiday season I heard a radio spot for Mist Twst Cranberry, which is usually available only around the holidays. The commercial’s jingle was set to “The Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy”, but the words were aligned to the product.

I only imprecisely remember the lyrics, but the words that caught my imagination were something to the effect of “…I dropped it on my foot. Ouch, gosh darn it, f*ck”. The last word is implied but never spoken. My mind immediately fills it in, and I think it’s a clever tactic to make the listener complicit in the “crime”.

This word is quite old, and there are several theories about its origin. It seems that it first appears in the 13th century in place names such as Ric Wyndfuck de Wodehous in Nottinghamshire’s Sherwood Forest in the UK, and finally makes its way into the written record in the 15th century. Its original meaning was “to strike” – and that might be the connection with the sex act. Today, in its verb form – considered to be obscene of course – it means “copulate” or “to have sexual intercourse with”. Its slang forms are used to express anger, contempt, annoyance, disgust, rejection and impatience. Its various forms are also used for emphasis and to express pleasant surprise – the last one a juxtaposition of obscenity and happiness or joy.

For me, the interesting thing about the Mist Twst spot is that immediately after inserting the curse word, my mind then runs through a long list of words that also fill in the space – some that work well and others that make no sense. Maybe that’s an effort to cleanse my mind of the swear word, or perhaps my brain likes to make a game of running through the list of words that fit – I do work with words after all. Regardless of the reason for doing it, it’s an exercise that flows from an emotional reaction and helps solidify part of the ad, and the product, in my mind.

Some other examples of implied swearing in ads include these two for Orbit gum and this OREO Fudge Cremes ad. All three ads used euphemisms or cuts to the next speaker for the swear word. The Make 7 UP Yours campaign used a play on words – involving an implied physical act that is related to our swear word – with great success. This one for Get Your Domain is engaging, but it hits you over the head and probably isn’t the best way to swear in an ad. (I must say that I like this ad, but I also like John Malkovich, so it’s difficult to separate the two.)

Does it work?

Swearing and obscenity are appealing and taboo at the same time. They evoke an emotional reaction – negative, positive or both – in the speaker and the listener. I think brands that use this tactic often intend to directly involve the viewer or listener in the act of swearing. One can’t help but fill in their chosen obscenity when they hear that bleep or a kinder word used in place of an obvious swear word. The approach compels the audience to participate – even those who don’t normally swear – and it’s the resulting emotional connection that brands count on and that makes the tactic so successful.

In advertising, it is these social factors that create the impact of swearing, rather than the structure or etymology of the words themselves. So, while the words “frack”, “shut” and “can’t” won't turn any heads, the words I know you know I mean certainly will – implied or otherwise. I swear it.

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