Sometimes it’s okay to swear (sorry mum). Step on a plug? That’s fine. Burn the Sunday roast? Fair enough. Missed the last train home and now your phone has died? Go on, let it all out. But what about when you’re working for a major brand? Well, you would be surprised.
Messages don’t always resonate with an audience in the way you intended. Unfortunately, it happens. But if you genuinely cause offense, it’s a complete disaster. This leads us on to the topic of swearing in copywriting and advertising - is it ever okay? Well, there’s a time and a place for everything. Here’s the right way to do it…
Appealing to emotion
Lane Greene, the language expert at The Economist, tells us that swearing activates a different part of the brain than normal speech does. It’s associated with the area that processes basic emotions rather than language itself. Considering this, let’s have a look at an advert for the online travel agent Booking.com:
‘This holiday has been a year in the planning. And here you are standing, nay staring down your dreams … The rest of your holiday hinges on the moment you walk through that door.
The door opens, you hold your breath and then you realise. You got it right. You got it booking right. Because it doesn’t get any better than this. It doesn’t get any booking better than this.’
The implied swearing works so well as it expresses an emotional benefit to their service: the sense of relief. It abides by one of the copywriting commandments of ‘benefits before features’ and it also reinforces the brand name through repetition.
Creating an identity
Having a distinct market position is an essential ingredient to success, and having a distinct tone of voice is one way to do this. We worked on an advertising campaign for the Imperial College Business School (ICBS) and were tasked with making them stand out against some major competitors.
We came up with an infinitely adaptable headline, ‘What the future does...?’ Imperial could add whatever they were researching to complete the question. E.g. 'What the future does nano technology have to do with saving the planet?' The tone was confident, the messaging was bold, and it presented ICBS as a forward thinker whose innovations in technology were shaping the future of business. For more details check out our case study.
KFC hit the headlines earlier in the year due to their ‘chicken crisis’ i.e. a dispute with a supplier meant that the fast food outlet was forced to close dozens of stores across the country. It doesn’t take a genius to realise that a chicken shop that doesn’t have any chicken will quickly lose favour with customers.
Swearing is a weakness - we swear when we lose our temper and simply can’t stop ourselves. So when a brand swears, it gains our sympathy as it reveals its fallibility. It sounds genuine and true.
KFC’s PR department received praise for their handling of their 'crisis'. They took out full-page ads in the Metro which saw their famous acronym reshuffled to spell ‘FCK’. The message is a complete admission of fault - something that’s often missing from major brand’s public apologies. But the implied swearing revealed the humanity of the corporation and that helped consumers understand and forgive its mistake.
Perhaps that’s the most powerful gain of hinting at swearing is this: it makes a brand sound human and less corporate, breaking down a barrier between it and the consumer.