WARNING: CONTAINS OFFENSIVE LANGUAGE*
*Unless you don’t get offended by words like ‘fuck’. In which case, the warning should read: contains language.
“Daddy, when are you going to teach me how to cut with a sharp knife and use naughty words?” asked my 5-year old daughter as I took her to daycare one morning. Aside from my concerns for how rough that playground must get between snacks, it got me wondering if there was an innate human desire to use profanity.
After all, they’re just words. And yet, they also aren’t ‘just’ words.
Of the 171,476 words currently in use in the English language, a select few are deemed taboo. In fact, in 2003 the Collins English Dictionary determined there are just 16 truly naughty words according to modern (and subjective) social standards, after downgrading 54 others from “taboo” to “slang” or merely “informal”, including bollocks and gangbang.
Over the centuries, taboo words have evolved and changed. A medieval nun wouldn’t have batted an eyelid over a ‘shit’ or a ‘piss’ because the words we consider taboo today were commonplace 500 years ago. The c-bomb was famously and publicly included in street names all over England between 1230 and 1561AD to describe those alleyways named after the prostitution industry that flourished on them.
In many European languages, the word for “bear” was taboo simply because it was a big scary animal that ate people. Back then, words connected to religious beliefs were considered profanity. The phrase “by God’s nails” was the most shocking expletive and would have seen the utterer completely “sarded” or their family “swived” – both ancient taboo words that mean the same as today’s “fucked.”
Society’s perception of profanity has changed so much over time that in 2015, three Australian protestors had charges of ‘offensive language’ against them dropped after they’d been arrested for shouting “Fuck Fred Nile” over a megaphone in public. The judge ruled “fuck” to be a part of everyday Aussie vernacular, citing the inoffensive usage in “you fucking beauty!”
Thus is the constant evolution of language.
San Diego State University studied the text of more than a million books published between 1950 and 2008, tracking instances of a specific list of words: shit, piss, fuck, cunt, cocksucker, motherfucker, and tits. Why these words? Because in 1972, American comedian George Carlin labeled tham as the seven words you can never say on television.
The study found that books published between 2005-2008 are 28 times more likely to include swear words. The researchers surmised this was the result of a dismantling of pre-existing social rules governing acceptable language, coupled with an increase in the value of self-expression.
However, swearing is still blacklisted from advertising. In Australia, like many other countries, the Advertising Standards Board’s code of ethics includes Section 2.5 Language which provides guidelines on obscene terms and obscured obscenities (among other categories). The Board, now known as Ad Standards, conducts rulings on consumer complaints against advertising and the ASB website puts all the cases into public domain – some very interesting reading – that shows how they determine if an ad gets banned. Or not.
Over the years, many advertisers and agencies have had a fucking good crack at getting swear words into ads. It’s a gamble to outright drop a swear into a commercial even if you think society has evolved enough so the offending word is no longer offensive. After creating this controversial but charmingly on-brief ad in 2003, Volkswagen had a change of heart and ran it online rather than on-air, citing “budget cuts”.
If you can’t simply write a swear word into a script, there are a few ways for potty-mouthed creatives to give their client’s ads that special oomph that only a swear word can give.
Method 1: The Forking Switch
One of the primary methods is to replace the swear word with an innocuous word, often sounding very similar. Most famously used in Kmart’s “Ship My Pants” (US) in 2013, this commercial was originally intended for YouTube only, but after being well-received with over 15 million views, it bravely and successfully debuted on several cable TV networks.
Back in 1999, a very young comedian Rich Hall faux-swore in a hilariously odd commercial for Miller beer.
Australian examples of faux profanity include YouFoodz’s 2017 TVC ‘Un-forking-believable’ which featured a kid doing a Gordon Ramsay impersonation with a fork.
The ASB banned the YouFoodz ad. However, according to case report 0423/17, the Board considered the ad made it obvious the kid wasn’t actually swearing but found the ad to be in breach because it was a child who was pretending to swear. The ad was banned but reappeared with beeps over the non-swearing. Unfortunately, the ad still drew complaints and the ASB determined it was still in breach, but this time because the censorship now made it appear the kid was genuinely swearing. For an adult this would be been acceptable, but the ASB couldn't allow a child to be seen using profanity even if it was bleeped.
By comparison, Handee Ultra paper towel got away with it when their ad drew consumer complaints but case report 0291/15 found uttering the word “sheeeeet” when you spill something and grab a sheet of Handee Ultra to wipe it up is acceptable use of language because “the word is contextualised immediately by onscreen imagery of the product being used”.
While KFC has been the target of complaints for years (and not just for their chicken), they got away with a TVC in which a kid replaces “Fuck it!” with “Bucket!”. Ten years earlier, Air Asia ran a billboard using a similar faux-swear which did receive a complaint but was approved to stay.
Method 2: Brand Bollocks
The second method for sneaking a swear word into a commercial is to use the brand name itself. Obviously this wouldn’t work for all brands, but it has proven to be quite effective at dodging ASB bullets.
Decades ago, the Australian beer brand XXXX made great use of their apparently censored name to imitate a censored swear word.
More recently in Australia, the boating, camping and fishing retailer BCF wants us all to have BCFing fun. This light-hearted and strategically insightful ad received quite a few complaints but the ABS dismissed consumer concerns in case report 0434/16 with the determination that while ‘effing’ in isolation would be a breach, the jaunty jingle and the graphics clearly explained that 'F is for fishing'. Very much a case of profanity being in the viewer’s ear rather than the speaker’s mouth.
The brand that took this to a truly new level was French Connection in 1991 when founder Stephen Marks and ad legend Trevor Beattie saw the opportunity for a massive rebrand on the fax header from FC’s Honk Kong office which read “FCHK to FCUK”. The controversial but pivotally successful initialism lasted for 14 years worldwide but has stayed in the consumer vernacular much longer than that.
Method 3: F*** Yourself
The third way to include profanity in an ad without actually including it is by self-imposed censorship: replacing the taboo word with another sound like a beep or a safe word.
IKEA won a silver Siren award for a radio ad about their kitchen product which includes six beeps over a young boy’s show and tell. Surprisingly, there appears to have been no complaints against this ad so one must assume it flew well under the radar in terms of media coverage.
While this may seem like the easiest solution to your profanity predeliction, it is probably a riskier approach as Section 2.5 of ASB’s charter includes a whole section title ‘Obscured terms’ and their case reports include banned ads for Curtain Villa (0400/16) and Anytime Fitness (0041/17), as well as reports for permitted ads that contained beeps clearly obscuring “fuck”.
Evidently, the key to obscuring a taboo is the context of the word. It can’t be used in animosity or nastiness, and should be used in a manner consistent with colloquial use such as venting frustration rather than randomly included for shock or salaciousness.
In the UK, Burger King combined methods 2 and 3 to use their brand name as the visible part of the self-censored taboo word. Complaints were lodged but the British Advertising Standards Authority cleared the campaign, saying "Although we considered that the ads were likely to be seen as distasteful to some, because they did not include any explicit bad language we concluded that they were unlikely to cause serious or widespread offence."
Method 4: Frak It
There is a space between what is a taboo word and what sounds like a taboo word. To be truly identified as a swear word, the word must be formally defined (by Oxford, Collins, et al). Otherwise, it’s just a random sound dropped into dialogue at the right contextual moment.
While this method has been employed by TV and film writers to avoid censorship and given us such gems as frak, smeg, frell, zarking fardwarks, yarblockos, jagweed, cloff-pronker and Ross Geller’s double fist bump, it has rarely been used in advertising. The trick is creating a word that sounds like an expletive but isn’t, and using it without aggressive verbal context that could sway your local advertising standards board to deem your ad a zarking breach.
SO WHY FUCKING SWEAR AT ALL?...
With so many rules governing taboo words, a segment of indignant and outspoken consumers holding onto traditional values of language, and the risk of having an ad banned, why do some brands want to swear in ads? And why should they want to?
Obviously, risqué language allows a brand’s message to provocatively stand out and achieve notoriety in a cluttered marketplace. But there’s more to it. These words have an important and distinctive effect. They convey human traits and contextual communicative elements that no other words can. They give emotional impact. They can add authenticity to a moment. They can improve relevance to certain audiences.
Taking all racial insults out of the picture (an obvious and welcomed hard no), today’s swear words are usually related to sex, the sexual organs or human effluvia – all the things we tell children are ‘yucky’ or ‘not to be touched’. The taboos are a construct of our own doing, thereby giving these words more prominence, more meaning, and more power.
An experiment by psychologist Richard Stephens at Keele University in Staffordshire proved students were able to keep their hands in ice water for 50% longer when they swore. Swearing alleviates pain.
Cognitive scientist Benjamin K. Bergen discovered that responsive expletives – those we exclaim when we stub a toe or lose our wallet – originate in a completely different part of the brain than the rest of our language. Swear words live in the limbic system and basal ganglia of our brain: the animal part that developed earlier in our evolutionary history and was once used for grunting, howling and screaming.
When we swear, we’re not talking – we’re using raw emotion that transcends conventional language.
In 1967, a chimpanzee named Washoe was the first non-human to be taught to communicate with sign language and actually went on to teach her adopted son Loulis the same skill. Washoe amazed her carers when she swore at a birthday party for one of the scientists, Roger Fouts. The chimp had never been taught any swear words, but when she was refused a second helping of birthday cake, Washoe instinctively called Roger a “shit” by pointing at him and repurposing the sign for “dirty” – a word she had learned to associate with her own excrement. It seems swearing is nature, not nurture.
Research from Stanford, Cambridge, Honk Kong University, and Maastricht University found that those who swear more often are more likely to be honest people and perceived as more trustworthy because profanity is less deceptive and unfiltered thought. Behavioral research at the University of Rochester discovered a strong link between swearing and intelligence. Psychologists at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts conducted several experiments that showed people who swear have greater vocabularies. And a study from the University of East Anglia found that swearing promotes better teamwork in an office environment, even for those team members who don’t swear.
The same study found swearing was also an effective tool for gender equality. All-male groups were shown to swear more frequently than all-female groups, but in a mixed gender group, the women increased their use of profanity as a way of preventing the conversation or situation from being dominated by men.
Other studies have shown the physical effects of profanity beyond the improvement of pain thresholds. Stephens also had subjects perform physical strength tests like riding a stationary bike with the brakes on – what an utter bastard! – or squeezing those hand springs TV sitcom characters use to improve their grip muscles, and found people became physically stronger when swearing, able to exert more force but without actually increasing their heart-rate or blood-pressure.
Research at Bristol University by Jeff Bowers discovered human skin increases in electrical conductivity when the subject vocalises profanity, demonstrating a measurable physiological response. Bowers’ test showed this electrodermal response still occurs when the subject uses euphemisms for swear words. While the response was not as high as for actual profanity, the dirty metaphors and double-entendres still produced a higher response than the baseline for ordinary ‘clean’ words.
This study seems to show that humans react to the intent of the word almost as much as the actual word itself. A faux swear word is nearly as good as a real one in conveying the emotional sentiment.
Returning then to our advertising examples above, those brands that have leveraged more colorful language, albeit euphemistic, have been tapping into a deeper psychological connection with consumers. Profanity can be an effective tool in branded communications, increasing relevance, disruption, share of voice, and even desire for the product or service – all of which is the very reason for advertising in the first place.
While you might not (and most brand should never) consider dropping the f-bomb in their next headline, the research indicates there are immense benefits in embracing self-expression to broaden the brand’s lexicon, and therefore its appeal.
Be a more relatable brand. More transparent. More human.
You’ll also be a more intelligent brand. More honest. More trustworthy.
And you’ll even increase your pain threshold.
WANT SOME FUCKING MORE?
AND IN CASE YOU WERE WONDERING...
I promised my daughter that from the age of ten, she will be allowed to add one swear word to her vocabulary each year, but only if she uses them fucking appropriately. She’s already a ninja with a sharp knife.