*(Disclaimer: If you’re offended easily, read on to find out why).
Imagine the scene; a child is in the playground surrounded by peers. A game of conkers goes awry. His pride and joy, his conker specially chosen for its battering potential, shatters to pieces across the tarmac.
In irritation, the child lets out an almighty “oh sh*t.”
He hears this word on TV and in rap songs. He hears this word on those Saturdays when his father’s lawnmower just won’t start.
But now, when he uses it, all hell breaks loose. Detention. A visit to the headmaster’s office. No dinner before bed. No sleepovers for a month!
The injustice! What has he done? He’s done all his homework and he’s eaten all his greens.
This retribution, for a sound? For a petty piece of word crime? How can adults be such hypocrites?
Because quite simply, words are weapons that must be used correctly, in the right context.
This is especially true when it comes to swear words. Think of writing like cooking. Swear words can be used to add a punch of flavour and spice to your writing. If you don’t use any, your writing could risk coming across bland and beige.
Use too many, and you’ll end up with disgusting, inedible sludge that’ll leave you needing to wash your mouth out.
That being said, swearing is an outlet for us to genuinely express ourselves. But it’s not as crude as you think because it relies on alliteration, meter and rhyme, and the full power of imaginative metaphor.
It also engages the brain’s full spectrum, from left to right and from ancient to modern.
But before we go into the do’s and don’ts of the curse, let’s take a little peek under the bonnet of swearing to understand why they are at once so repellent and seductive.
THE PSYCHOLOGY OF SWEARING
It’s a puzzle why swear words trigger us. Every major-league swear word has a more polite homonym.
The sayable can become unsayable at the flip of a vowel.
But it’s not quite as fun to tell a taxi driver who cuts you up to ‘be fruitful and multiply’.
If the word ‘intercourse’ or ‘copulate’ was said on television before 9 pm, it wouldn’t offend a church mouse. But replace it with its well-known equivalent, and a TV station’s complaint switchboard will light up like a Christmas tree.
To understand swearing, you’ll have to understand what upsets and unnerves people. Most modern swear words revolve around sex and excretion.
The seven words you can’t say on television all dance around these fundamentals.
But what holds all these concepts in common? Come to think of it, it’s not exactly the concept of swearing that offends people. It’s the unconventional pairing of concept and sound.
Some swear words are slowly losing their sting, whilst others are turning up the oomph.
It may surprise you to know that the dandelion was once called a ‘pissabed’ and a heron was called a ‘shitecrow’. Swear words are like trends that come and go.
What makes swearing offensive is that it has the potential to intrude into the mind. Where the processing of words is automatic. You can’t choose what words you hear or read.
Reading is an innate skill for most people, and you simply can’t turn it off. This means that swearing steals our attention and forces us to imagine unpleasant things. Like an involuntary injection of dirt into our otherwise (mostly) clean minds.
Let me break it down for you.
Our brains are formed of two parts, one old and one new. The old part, the part we share with all other mammals, is called the limbic system. This drives motivation and is responsible for our fight-or-flight instinct.
Within the limbic system, it is the amygdala that is responsible for attaching emotions to memories. When people are sworn at during an fMRI brain scan, their amygdala fires up.
Pretty intense, isn’t it? So, the next time you get road rage, blame it on that overactive limbic system of yours.
But here’s the cool part about swearing, which is the whole point of this blog post: you can use it to your creative brand’s advantage.
USE SWEARING TO PACK A PUNCH
Swearing in your copywriting can be a blessing or a curse. So how can you optimise good results by breaking into bad words?
Is there really a way to swear properly?
Here’s the trick you’ve been waiting for. Strategically throwing in a swear word (or something that visually looks like one) is a great tactic to attract attention.
To emphasise a point. To deliver shock value. But if you use them too much, your writing will appear lazy. You will look crass. And your brand will burn.
Swearing has forever been used by brands to attract the wandering eye, such as what Bold Digital did here.
It’s also no accident that French Connection United Kingdom’s initials are FCUK. And restaurant chain, Fuddruckers knew exactly what they were doing.
But that’s not all. There’s a chock-full of examples of brands using swear words to their advantage, so take inspiration from them.
But also remember to treat swearing like a guilty pleasure. Take it in moderation when it comes to using it in your marketing campaign.
There should always be a purpose behind the shock value of the swear word you decide to use. You have to weigh its pros and cons before making a decision.
To make your life easier, we’ve broken it down for you.
SWEARING ADDS THE ELEMENT OF SURPRISE
Swearing in marketing carries an element of surprise. Most people put up an ‘anti-BS’ filter when hit with marketing content. Strategic swearing helps dismantle that filter and allows your true message to be heard.
SWEARING SHOWS DARING
Swearing within marketing can also illustrate a willingness to play with the taboo and bend unwritten rules. It can show you’re oozing with the other c-word; charm.
SWEARING CAN ATTRACT THE RIGHT AUDIENCE
If your brand has a specific personality that is unpretentious and straight-talking, then you may find that swearing turns away those who you don’t want, and keeps the people you do. If you try to please everyone, you’ll end up pleasing no one.
SWEARING ADDS FLAVOUR
Swearing itself may not be intrinsically funny, but a well-timed swear word can add comic flavour to your copy that is authentic to your voice and brand.
Beware, too much swearing feels like a series of jabs in the ribs, and you definitely do not want to do that to your target audience.
SWEARING CAN DAMAGE SHAREABILITY
Firstly, you risk not getting as many shares of your content as usual. Even if someone doesn’t care as much about swearing, they may be slightly more iffy about sharing your content so they don’t appear rude in front of friends, family or God forbid, employers.
SWEARING CAN BE OFF-BRAND
There also aren’t that many brands whose tone of voice would necessarily suit and eff and a blind. Swearing is strictly for those brands who clearly and deliberately include the occasional curse word in their tone of voice guidelines.
SWEARING CAN SEND THE WRONG MESSAGE
Swearing can also make you appear lazy. For example, if a journalist can only describe Piers Morgan as a d*ck, then that journalist definitely needs a new thesaurus.
EXPECT PUSHBACK FROM WITHIN YOUR ORGANISATION
You can also expect to get a fair amount of kickback within your own organisation when you attempt to use swear words in your marketing collateral.
It may well be the case that you want to invoke certain unsayable words without actually saying them. And in many cases, here lies the sweet spot.
This relies on a fancy-sounding word called ‘structural parallelism’. In short, they’re euphemisms that follow the same rhythm or syllable of the word you want to say.
Consider one of these alternatives for bullshit; bullcrap or claptrap. The connecting feature is that like bullshit, they are composed of two stressed, single-syllable words with emphasis on the first word. They just don’t evoke the same emotional response.
According to neuroscientists, replacing the nastiest words with their structural parallels can let off steam as effectively as if we had uttered the filthy original.
The same effect happens in the mind of the reader. Using an alternative word can carry a similar shock-factor without the consequences of arbitrary social censorship getting in the way.
WHAT OTHER EXPERTS THINK:
“Swearing is not the only way to surprise. But at a time when swearing still feels strange in a marketing context, it carries this power. And it’s one of the reasons that ‘Buy More Beef You Bastards’ (by a beef promotion board in Australia) is one of my all-time favourite headlines.”
–Doug Kessler, Creative Director and Co-founder of Velocity
“As much as I may be risking turning people off with a tagline that uses the word “mofo”, that’s a risk I’m willing to take to create a sticky, memorable message. After all, who doesn’t want people to tweet about their tagline?”
–Joanna Wiebe, Conversion Copywriter and creator of Copyhackers
THE ART AND THE SCIENCE: KEY TAKEAWAYS
Before you take the plunge into Swearlandia, here’s a recap of everything we’ve got to grips so far.
We all know that in general, swearing is crass and not classy at all. But knowing how to handle swear words in your copy and campaign makes a big difference.
To be effective you should:
- Use a swear word only if there’s a meaningful purpose behind it.
- Use it sparingly, mainly to attract the audience’s attention or give emphasis.
- Never use swear words when they’re off-brand and not in line with your tone of voice.
Knowing how to swear properly goes beyond using the right swear words at the right time. You also have to keep in mind who your audience is and how it can affect them.
Take these scientific facts into consideration:
- Swearing, at the onset, can have an offensive connotation because our brains are wired to automatically interpret them as obscene.
- Using alternative words that visually look like a swear word is one of the best ways of working around it. They will warrant a second look and make the reader realise the real point of having the “controversial” word there.
- Anything that looks or sounds wrong can attract attention, so use swear words wisely, with the right approach.
Now you have had a meandering tour of the psychological, semantic and practical elements of swearing, it’s time for you to have a crack yourself.
Mark my words. Have fun and stay safe.