Is the use of expletives a provocative move or a weakness?
Anyone who’s ever met me knows I tend to curse like a motherfucker. It’s not a case of Tourette’s syndrome, nor is it done to deliberately shock whoever I’m speaking with. It’s just a habit of mine, and I do it too damn much.
Regardless, I still wince when I hear curse words used in some instances. Recently, a few uses of it in advertising made me pretty damn concerned about our business.
In Germany recently, Unilever’s Du darfst brand launched an ad campaign themed, “Fuck the Diet.” It was explained that in Germany, “fuck” has a softer, “let it be” type of meaning. But the fuckin’ Germans aren’t fooling anyone. Not these days, when ad campaigns rocket around the world on the Internet in seconds and the English-speaking world sees it. Frankly, I call bullshit on the brand’s explanation.
In the trailer for AMC’s “The Pitch,” one of the McKinney CD’s looked right in the camera and said, “We wanna fuckin’ win.” The network had to bleep it out (and all the many other expletives during the show) for some reason. However, in “Mad Men” AMC lets the curse words fly unbleeped. Seems that the network is a little fuzzy on the cursing rules, so it’s no wonder the rest of us are, too.
So is all this cursing proper behavior for us, and the work we produce? I mean, what the fuck?
We learn from an early age that cursing’s not generally accepted. Many years ago, I gave a Career Day presentation about advertising to a group of 6th graders. I showed a reel of commercials (not mine) as various examples. One spot was a pro-voting spot with the tagline, “If you don’t vote, don’t bitch.” The kids let out a collective gasp at that — to them, that was a borderline bad word.
But times change, and we’re slowly breaking down our cultural norms and resistance to expletives. A while back, one class of university advertising students established a meme and a hashtag to “build shit.” Which, to me, cheapened their championing of creation. Plus, it’s a good thing curse words aren’t taken literally.
Is all this cursing still shocking anyone? Is it the new normal for business etiquette? Or am I just losing my shit for no good reason?
Perhaps it’s one of the perks of working in advertising. You can’t get away with cursing if you’re a customer-facing retail employee. (Think of Brad in “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” getting fired on the spot for threatening to kick a customer’s ass.)
But we also forget that we take more liberties at an ad agency office than our clients do. Most marketers still live in a corporate world where rules regarding language, behavior, and professional decorum are strictly enforced. What we in advertising might consider OK to do is a fireable offense in many businesses. Lots of non-advertising agency people are probably shitting in their pants just reading this.
We may be becoming too accustomed to using profanity, though. So we try to inject a little of this attitude into the work we present to clients. But the only reason curse words get used is for shock value. It adds a little over-the-top emphasis, as any George Carlin or Chris Rock fan will attest. However, the prevalent use of cursing gradually desensitizes us. And if our job is to perpetually push boundaries, where do we take our work from here?
Advertising people are clever at finding ways to slip in a little profanity, though. YouTube videos aren’t bound by the same rules as network television or radio. So it’s become OK to slip in a few expletives in the “viral” version. The Kenny Powers videos for K-Swiss comes to mind. Think of these videos as the unrated version of our work, just like a special edition DVD. And we all know which version we prefer.
Maybe it’s just not a big fuckin’ deal anymore. But the ad industry constantly fights for some modicum of respect. From our clients, from the business community, and from the public. It might be a losing battle. Remember, advertising is the uninvited guest at the media party. Do we need another reason for people to loathe what we do?
So it might be time for us to clean up our damn acts. Especially if the rest of society is getting dirtier, rhetorically speaking. If you see someone present a concept that throws in some gratuitous cursing, ask them this:
Is that the best fucking idea you’ve got?
If not, then fuck it. Let it die and come up with a better idea.
You know, I’m glad I get the chance to express these kinds of thoughts. That’s what I love about this fucking business.
Since 2002, Dan Goldgeier has been writing the most provocative advertising columns about advertising and marketing -- over 170 of them, covering every related topic you can think of. Now based in Seattle, Dan is a copywriter and ad school graduate who's worked at shops big and small.
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