Is it right to drop the f-bomb in marketing?

Another bland marketing email lands in your inbox, but this one contains the kind of explicit language that would have got you a real rollicking at school. But the question remains, does it grab the right kind of attention? Molly Raycraft writes

It’s surprising how much consternation a few little letters can cause in the marketing world. And no, I’m not talking about GDPR. Swear words, those offensive colloquialisms we use when we’re angry or for comedic effect (usually during informal situations) have been creeping into the professional realms of marketing. While half the audience is laughing at your pure genius the other half are tempted to repeat your words in a lengthy complaint. But amid the attention, good or bad, is it right to use them?

Genius attention-grabbing

Some could say it’s pure genius. The fact prospects care so much about your company’s actions, that they’ve abandoned their strict time schedules to let you know their feelings via a lengthy email is remarkable (most marketers pray for nothing more than a click).

The fact it’s bad feedback is another matter. But it’s certain they’re not going to forget about you for a while and it’s likely they’re going to relay the scandal to multiple colleagues, and if you’re lucky, their twitter followers. After all, they do say there’s no such thing as bad publicity.

I think we only need to look as far as KFC’s chicken shortage disaster (admittedly B2C) to see the clever side of swearing. A nifty rearrangement of the letters KFC helped turn a PR disaster into a witty admission of fault, garnering praise from the wider advertising community. To sum it up, that one word generated more reaction than any positive public display KFC could have imagined. 

But stop before you start adding explicit language to every other line of your news bulletin, the B2B crowd is a different kettle of fish. KFC customers are buying a product that’s used in their social life, a part of their life where they probably do swear; therefore the marketing is relevant and resonates. And while it’s true a 20-year-old student is likely to find it funny, will a professional businessperson looking for their next refractory supplier find it equally amusing? It’s a trickier line to toe.

Unprofessional desperate slur

It’s a bit like a dad trying to use the slang of today with his kids, it’s unwarranted, embarrassing and most often incorrectly delivered. Some people will look at your neatly designed email professionally stamped with your brand and notice the word ‘fuck’ at the top of the page, before having a titter to themselves. Others however, will not be so kind. In a time when office wear is likely to be anything from jeans and t-shirt to suit and tie, marketing language has similarly become blurred.

If you’re looking to invest millions in a new piece of software, are you going to go with someone that can’t think of anything original to say in their marketing other than random words that deliver a shock factor? Of course some will say yes, it’s funny, it’s down to earth. But at the same time, it’s not professional and it’s a cop out for capturing attention. As much as you’re likely to seem like a confident business to some, you’re equally likely to be seen as a crass idiot to others.

So when I rolled it out to the good voters of #Polloftheweek on Twitter, what was the consensus? As mixed as the dress code of the modern day marketing office. There was a variety of answers but ultimately ‘no to swearing’ edged forward to claim the win.

What the voters say

Is it right to drop the f-bomb in marketing?

This poll evoked a decent response, which goes to show that language used in a 12A film can still cause controversy. The consensus was pretty neck and neck but when broken down into those that would be cautious with its usage and those that frankly don’t give a …. The orthodox clean speakers won the day. Overall, 46% felt swearing in marketing was vulgar and unnecessary, with one describing it as ‘unprofessional’ and another ironically calling it utter ‘crap’ (it seems there is a line that can be drawn when it comes to offensive language).

However, 37% of people weren’t adamantly against profanity, stating that its usage really depends on context – which is understandable if you envision what a campaign with effing and blinding in every line would look like. A further 17% were the jokers of the pack, believing the resistance should lighten up. The lesson learned here, of course, is an age-old one: know who your audience is (before sending out a 12A rated email).