What the f***?

Copywriter and blogger Andrew Boulton posts an interesting piece on the use of swearing in advertising today. Basically, he argues we should have more of it. Used wisely, of course:

“…as a copywriter, I feel that there is something to be said for the use of swearing in advertising. Used thoughtfully, in a way that actually strengthens the impact of a message, bad language can elevate a piece of copywriting.

Naturally, the old cliché of ‘exclamation, not punctuation’ must be applied for bad language in a marketing message to enhance it.

There are countless examples of where swear words are used lazily or purely for shock value where it comes across as vulgar and puerile. But if done with intelligence and for legitimate reasons there’s surely something to be said for these undoubtedly powerful words.”

Swearing still has impact. How many of you clicked on the link because you thought you might be in for something shocking? But is swearing in danger of losing its currency?

Not yet, I’d argue. Even though we hear more profanity on a daily basis than people did, say, thirty years ago, there’s still something quite devastating about the ‘f’ or ‘c’ word. True, there are some less imaginative people out there who seem to use it in every sentence. But if it’s loaded correctly, it can shock even the most filthy-minded docker into submission.

It’s amazing how a simple word can have such an effect. Bill Bryson, in his excellent book Mother Tongue, tells us that swearing goes back centuries and that one South African tribe has a particularly endearing swear word that translates as “your mother’s ears”. Shouted in a drunken brawl on a British high street, it would raise a titter. Try it at a tribal gathering and you’d be lucky to see into the next five minutes.

Loaded language could be a powerful tool in marketing. But it has been used before and left the advertiser a bit red-faced. Back in 2006, Tourism Australia was left reeling after a heated reaction to their “Where the bloody hell are you?” slogan. The ad was eventually banned in the UK.

Perhaps we are a little less frightened by bad language now. After all, ‘bloody hell’ is pretty innocuous to most people these days. But to write an advert that brazenly displays the ‘f’ word in all its glory – without resorting to asterisks or hash tags – well, that would take a brave copywriter indeed.

5 thoughts on “What the f***?

  1. My language, Japanese, doesn’t have many swear words and we don’t use them in real life unless in cartoons etc. So I’ve always been interested in why on earth people have to use swear words to express their feelings in English. They sound very exotic to me. I’m wondering if it is related to a social stigma placed by a particular culture or religion, and maybe people feel shocked or titillated by using those words. Does Thai have swear words like English?

    • Yeah, that’s interesting, K. Thai does have swear words and sometimes they are the same words as non-offensive ones but with a different inflection. That caused a few giggles sometimes when I was pronouncing my very bad Thai! Swearing in English has been documented for many centuries and has roots in meanings related to bodily functions and sex…much like today. Curious that Japanese culture has nothing similar. You are just way too polite, clearly!

  2. Oh it’s interesting that Thai has such swear words. There are some in Japanese, but they are not related to sex nor body parts. I think swear words have different effects on speakers of English as a second language. The bloody hell ad does nothing to me, but I feel very offended by f words. But my Thai friends said that they couldn’t care less those f words (maybe it depends on person also).

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