The F word in Advertising
The 7 words you can never use in advertising
Since someone started messing around with fashion brand FCUK, it's been the proverbial slippery slope in use of crude language in advertising.
I actually wrote this piece a couple of months ago, and then did no get around to posting it. Yesterday news broke of a major company, Unilever, breaking the taboo in the use of the F word in advertising in Germany; so I thought it was past time to get it out. Maybe I could have prevented this particular travesty.
This is not about the occasional slip of the tongue or embarrassing moment, as just happened between the mayoral candidates in London. This is about brands and agencies making a deliberate and considered choice to use profanity in copy.
American comedian and genius George Carlin did a famous routine about the "7 words you can never say on television". It is hilarious. Google it. But there are still words that ought never to be used in advertising. Does it make you the coolest brand manager on the block if you are the first to use one of those words? Carlin’s joke is a good one- and it was done about 30 years ago. So to run into the F word has long lost its shock value. The F boat has sailed.
Standards vary a lot around the world. I will admit that the liberal use of naked women in tv advertising in Europe may have played a passing role in me trading Canada for Amsterdam back in the 90s. But Europeans, in particular, are obviously not grasping the foulness of the English words they use. Not that I'm above the occasional bit of trash talk if a pitch is going the wrong way, or a meeting ends badly, or if Holland lost to Germany in football.
But things have gone too far. Not in the “I’m so shocked” way, but rather in the “how bloody boring” way.
H&M, in launching their flagship store in Amsterdam, had a crude billboard featuring the F word.
NY Pizza, a regional chain over here, thought "damn f'ing tasty", was the way to go to move their merchandise:
And now "Du Darfst", a diet range from Unilever, has gone with a "F...the Diet" rallying cry.
Recently I came home to see my pre-teen daughters watching a prime-time reality show called Trinny & Susannah: Missie Holland. Trinny and Suzie in their make-over show on Dutch tv were swearing like sailors. The f word is regularly sprinkled in titles and coming out of the mouths of tv personalities. Not on the Playboy channel you understand. But in the middle of an Oprah-style reality show.
So whether walking down the street, standing in the main square, or tuning into prime-time TV, it is hard to avoid.
I make an exception for the web. Unlike TV, print, or billboards, where the objectionable stuff is hard to miss even if you try, the internet mainly involves work that you actually have to choose to watch. So it hardly matters when K-Swiss makes some funny and foul videos starring Kenny Powers. You have to go looking for it. It’s only in your face if you put it there. Hope it sells a load of sneakers.
What's happening here?
Does swearing work for brands? Is language that ought to get your mouth washed out with soap driving brand equity for FMCG brands? Are sales racing ahead for the crudest brand of all?
I doubt it. Perhaps it's all based on a great advance in neuro-marketing (THE buzz word du moment). Do our primeval brain synapses light up when naughty words appear in advertising? I can imagine the research now. It reminds me of a Monty Python sketch.
What makes it all much worse is that the vast majority of this stuff is just bad. Bad copy. Bad advertising. And bad for us. It's not funny. It's not shocking. It's not rebellious. It is stupid, crude, irrelevant, and lazy. So cut it out. Is there an actual adult in the house who checks the copy before this stuff goes out? I read some research recently that concluded that these days kids grow old too fast, and adults try to stay children forever. It's all too true and it's depressing. Do not release the child inside. Keep that kid locked up in your brain. Instead go off and make some new ones. It’s more fun.
Yet we don't have to be vestal virgins. Good luck finding one of those in this business. "Hello, Boys" for Wonderbra is an example of the fun, witty, suggestive and, yes, exploitative bit of copy that ought to be enough. The line wasn't "f... me, boys". It didn't need to be.
The Axe/Lynx ads mostly work precisely because there is a line that you don't cross. And yet there seems to be an explosion of advertising pushing the limits - of the idiotic and the lame.
I am not from the Oxford English Dictionary language police, you understand. Language is made to be messed with. It's how the word "friend" is now both a noun and a verb (as in "to friend" someone). The English language is notably adaptable and pliable.
"Think Different", for instance, is grammatically questionable but at least memorable. A lot of corporate-speak lines that make up words or bastardize grammar are just as objectionable as any swear word. But even grammar should only be tossed aside if it generates some kind of genuine double-take, preferably in the form of a spontaneous belly laugh, or in making you look at the world in a new way, if only for an instant.
But somehow we let it all slide these days. The banality hides its serious side though. It contributes to the degradation of language in the public space. Advertising takes up so much of that space that it actually matters. True, there are many abuses of language to rail against. I spend a lot of time traveling and as annoyed as I am by the use of the f word, I am equally taken aback by the radio shock-jock hacks and what they are doing to the public and political discourse in the USA. It is as objectionable and destructive as any swear word. Same goes for anonymous blog comment. Even serious members of the Twitterati often sprinkle their tweets with the F word.
The old line says that people don't hate advertising, they hate bad advertising. Some of the best, wittiest, most touching, succinct, intelligent writing in the last 100 years has been in advertising copy. For a brief moment, every now and then, we have the power to create magic. Most of the time we even get paid for it. And in that moment we can elevate someone's daily slog. Make them smile, laugh, or think... Or we can piss on his leg and go for the gutter.
My continental friends, for whom English is a second language, can be forgiven for thinking that the F word has become so commonplace as to be acceptable for brands to use, given how often it creeps into the media these days. But they are wrong. Save it for the pub or the locker room.
99% of the uses of those "oh so very naughty" words are not only jarring and offensive but just lazy creative work. So cut it out. Or my mother will come to your agency and wash your mouth out with soap.
CEO & Founder