As a copywriter, I have a problematic relationship with swearing.
For many years, I thought it was ridiculous that the ASA frowned upon everyday language in corporate communications. Why did we censor the public use of words that pretty much all of us use in private? It just seemed disingenuous and puritanical and I used to dream of a day when we could all just eff and jeff to our heart’s content in advertising.
Yet, ever since the watershed moment where French Connection playfully and rather cleverly rebranded themselves FCUK, garnering more attention than their rather sedate line of clothing perhaps deserved, I’ve nevertheless found myself more and more turned off by the increasingly arrogant, thuggish, lairy air that profanity gives to many of the companies and public figures that use it with any regularity.
A cursing caveat
Not that I don’t swear, myself. The very last article I wrote for this blog was saltier than a sailor’s sou’wester. It was pretty plain, though, that I was in an aggressive mood when I wrote the top 5 things to do to avoid terrible copywriting. And, having given the article the ‘overnight test’, I find myself cringing at the bullying tone the swearing adds to the piece. Which is the key issue.
Today, I scroll through LinkedIn and every bandwagon jumper and her sister has jumped on the F-train to Swearsville in their corporate comms. It’s an assault on the senses and, rather than making me feel liberated, as is clearly the intention, it just leaves me feeling a bit empty and dreaming of the good old days when we used to think before we blurted.
Is there no better way of getting people’s attention?
Sure, cursing like you’ve just smashed a hammer on your thumb will certainly draw people to your writing. But is it necessarily the kind of attention you want?
Imagine if, one morning at work, you just stood up at your desk and started yelling, ‘Fuck! Cunt! Wanking shitballs!’ Yes, everyone would turn around and look at you. And I imagine a few of the alpha male types would be saying to each other, ‘Yes, mate, that was amazin’. That is well goin’ viral!’ Meanwhile, the thinkers among you would be asking yourselves, ‘What has my line of work come to that this is considered everyday office behaviour?’
Well, the same goes for copywriting. Of course people are going to pay attention to your content if you’re dropping the F-bomb in every third headline. But is doing so going to endear them any more to your brand? Is it going to make them respect you more? Or is it just going to make them feel like they’re at a coked-up convention of recruitment consultants where only the sweariest survive?
In the end, what feels cathartic for the writer might very well feel threatening for the audience. And I’m just not convinced that such macho shows of aggression are the same thing as USPs.
The thick revolution
Swearing like your Mum’s not reading is part of a wider problem of dumbing down in advertising, too.
When I was a kid, the latest adverts were talking points at school. That’s because they demanded that the audience think a little bit. Sometimes to work out the meaning of a visual or verbal pun. Sometimes to dream of the next instalment in the campaign and wonder where it was going. Sometimes to just wonder what the heck it meant or to revel in the cleverness of it all.
And those adverts stayed with us our whole lives. Those of us old enough to have been targeted by ’80s heyday advertising still talk about the Audi, Silk Cut, Guinness, Ambrosia, Cadbury’s, Smash and countless other ads to this day. Will we be doing the same thing about corporate comms that simply curse at us to get our attention?
Well, no. We definitely won’t.
There are exceptions to this rule, where swearing is used as part of a wider creative thought process. But, in those cases, the swearing isn’t the core function of the concept; it’s just the object that’s being manipulated by the copywriter.
FCUK is a good example of this, because it presents us with the puzzle of a double meaning that we have to take a moment to work out. The same could be said of the Burger King ad where the image of the burger obscures what we assume to be the letters ‘FUC’ so that the headline simply reads, ‘KING GREAT.’
What makes these ads more interesting and more intelligent than simply blurting out a barrage of expletives is that they acknowledge the taboo position swearing occupies in our culture. And they play with it. And that’s crucial in maintaining their impact.
They impress us as much as they shock us. They make us laugh. They make us feel a bit naughty. They allow swearing to retain its high impact by keeping it at the level of taboo. As soon as we remove that and just thuggishly incorporate swearing into every third word of our written content, it becomes meaningless. There's nothing - NOTHING- disruptive about swearing if everyone's doing it.
And I’m not sure I want to be part of a culture that no longer allows me to distinguish between the harsh and aggressive and the everyday. Fuck that shit.