Branding with vulgarity

BY Lisa Svadjian

If you’re looking to introduce vulgarity to your branding—whether for humour or shock value, or both—handle it with care.

Alongside other notable character traits, like a knifesharp wit and a habit of bad investments, Mark Twain reportedly had a mouth like a sailor. He waxed philosophic about this tendency enough times to leave us with such choice quotations as “Profanity is more necessary to me than is immunity from colds,” and “Under certain circumstances, urgent circumstances, desperate circumstances, profanity provides a relief denied even to prayer.” It’s this latter quotation I’m interested in: the relief that swearing can give. But in this case, I’m wondering whether it can give relief—more popularity, increased engagement, an uptick in sales—to a brand that’s chosen to use it.

The public sphere of brands, where they come out to speak their piece via TV, radio, the internet, etc., is a fairly polite and conservative place, governed by written and unwritten rules of conduct. Among other things, brands want our respect—our “friendship” even, on places like Facebook, Instagram and Twitter—and aren’t generally interested in seeing how many people they can alienate or offend with uncouth behaviour. Even in the more conversational realm of social media, brands are watching their words. Think of a brand as an applicant at a job interview: cautious, amenable and entirely unlikely to drop an f-bomb, even if her interviewer swears casually throughout the encounter. And if the interviewee—or brand— decides to go ahead and take a risk in this direction, you can be sure it’s a very carefully calculated one.

But brand vulgarity does exist, of course, running the gamut from the subtly suggestive (Virgin Atlantic’s “Sit, shower, shave” print ad for its Revivals Lounge) to the bleeped-out (the little old lady in the Frank’s RedHot TV spots saying, “I put that s—t on everything”) to the no-holds-barred (early-detection and education organization Fuck Cancer).

Why the potty mouth, then? There are several reasons:

1. To catch the audience’s attention.

There’s usually something incongruous about swearing in advertising. The Frank’s RedHot spots are one example; another is Kmart’s wildly successful (from a viral standpoint) “Ship My Pants” online commercial:

Man: Ship my pants? Right here? Ship my pants? You’re kidding.
Employee: You can ship your pants—right here.
Man (to woman): You hear that? I can ship my pants for free.
Woman: Wow! I may just ship my pants.
Man: Yeah, ship your pants. Billy—you can ship your pants, too.
Kid: I can’t wait to ship my pants, Dad.

And so on. Sometimes swearing is just funny, considering the source: Kmart is saying “shit” on TV! A typical comment under the YouTube clip: “OMG I DIED LAUGHING.”

2. To give the audience the satisfaction of getting the joke.

Because, of course, Kmart is not actually saying “shit.” That’s the punchline—they’ve gotten away with saying a dirty word on TV (even “online TV”) by not actually saying it. The whole commercial is a nudge in the ribs, and it spread like wildfire when it appeared in 2013. Today, it boasts close to 33 million views and well over three million Facebook shares. Another comment on YouTube : “Hahaha this is funny as ship.”

3. To make the audience feel like the brand is “one of the guys.”

Bud Light’s banned 2007 Super Bowl “Swear Jar” commercial, which never aired on TV but made big waves online, is a good example. Heavily bleeped, the ad features office workers swearing casually and frequently, in order to buy a case of Bud Light with the proceeds of the office swear jar. Self-confident and funny enough to win friends quickly, the spot won an Emmy for Outstanding Commercial and was voted best commercial of the first decade of the 2000s by readers of Adweek.

4. It’s a natural part of the brand’s voice.

It’s hard to imagine this being the case for a retail brand, but in the case of, say, celebrity chefs, it’s often been a requirement. Gordon Ramsay and Anthony Bourdain should be dropping f-bombs, because that’s what we expect them to do. Whether that “natural” inclination to vulgarity eventually wears thin is another matter.

In the case of Fuck Cancer, which has built a four-letter word right into its name, the strategy is bold and clear. The cancer-prevention organization aims its message at millennials, who are arguably less sensitive to public vulgarity. It declares its intentions on its website: “We’re taught not to talk about our bodily functions; we’re taught not to swear. Well, fuck that—we’re going to do both.”

To them—to most people—cancer is a worthy object of rage, and nothing expresses rage quite as succinctly as a well-timed f-word.

“We use edgy, funny, and provocative online campaigns to break through to a media-saturated generation,” the site goes on. (The reasons for brand vulgarity multiply and blur, of course; Fuck Cancer is as interested in grabbing its audience’s attention as it is in maintaining an authentic voice.)

So, does swearing “work”? It can help brands make a statement, even if that statement isn’t any more profound than “Hey, I’m one of you.” It certainly has a hand in making ads go viral, which these days seems to be the high-water mark of successful advertising.

By such standards, the Kmart “Ship My Pants” ad hit the jackpot—and the struggling brand could use a win. Yet Kmart sales continued to fall after the video appeared, and its stores continue to close. (Time’s Josh Sanburn points out that this may be the point: Kmart would rather focus on its web presence than its falling-apart-at-the-seams stores.)

Virality’s correlation to business performance is difficult to measure—viewers may not even remember the company behind the ad they liked so much. In Kmart’s case, it seems that viewers did remember, and the company scored high in YouGov BrandIndex’s ad awareness category throughout 2013. However, its value perception (a pretty good determiner of whether customers will actually shop there) remained well below its peers.

In any case, one knockout ad or two (let’s not forget Kmart’s follow-up spot, “Big Gas Savings”) cannot save a leaking ship, especially when the ad is promoting something as unremarkable as buying online.

Indeed, most brands still need to watch their mouths. A TV commercial for Capital One’s Quicksilver card featured Samuel L. Jackson declaring, “Unlimited 1.5% cash back on every purchase, everywhere, every damn day.” The ad received considerable backlash—is even mild vulgarity ever okay for a bank?—and was soon replaced by a PG version (possibly as a response to the criticism or, as the bank maintains, part of its planned campaign rollout).

But sometimes it just works. A recent case of vulgarity beginning to be built into a brand: Justin Trudeau. In 2011, while still just an MP, he shouted “Oh, you piece of shit!” at then-Environment Minister Peter Kent in the House of Commons. As Liberal party leader, he employed the f-word with noticeable frequency. When asked by TV host George Stroumboulopoulos whether he needed to monitor his tongue, he replied, “Shit, what do I say?” The audience broke into applause.

Trudeau is a politician who knows that the young voters of today like their leaders to be a little unbuttoned, a little off-the-cuff. In response to Stroumboulopoulos, Trudeau continued: “I had to make a choice early on. Do I have a private, secret life, or do I live fairly openly and consistently with the person I am?” As such, Trudeau cut a figure quite unlike his chief opponent, the rigid prime minister Stephen Harper, but—most strategically, I believe—quite like his illustrious father, enigmatic former prime minister Pierre Trudeau. The elder Trudeau famously mouthed “fuck off” in the House of Commons in 1971, later claiming to have mouthed “fuddle duddle.”

Not a bad comparison to draw: yourself to the most beloved prime minister of the 20th century, who happens to be your father. In which case, I think we can count on Trudeau’s curse words to keep coming.

But not too many, of course. Even when cursing is your “thing”—again, think of foul-mouthed celebrity chefs—the possibility of overuse looms large. Viewers, weary of the long and frequent bleeps in shows like Hell’s KitchenThe F-Word or MasterChef, seemed more tickled to see Ramsay in his Christmas specials or on his show Gordon Ramsay’s Ultimate Home Cooking, surrounded by his kids and dropping nary an expletive. Having cultivated a persona as the chef you love to hate, Ramsay seems to be implementing a shocking rebrand: turning off the vulgarity tap entirely.

Brands beware: judiciousness is called for, in this as in all things. You must know your audience, be the kind of brand that “can” swear, or take a risk with your eyes wide open.

And, as with all brand behaviour, it has to be authentic. As Twain remarked to his wife after she recited back to him, word for word, one of his outbursts: “It would pain me to think that when I swear it sounds like that. You got the words right, but you don’t know the tune.”

Vulgarity, obscenity, profanity: What’s the difference?

Cuss words generally fall into three main categories:

Vulgarity, arguably the “safest” potty-mouth activity, generally describes language that is “improper”; that is, language not fit for polite company. Interestingly, many words considered vulgar in English (e.g., “shit,” “fuck” and some that are too strong even for our sensibilities at Sway—look them up, if you dare) derive from perfectly acceptable terms brought to England by Germanic invaders. After the Normans (from Normandy) came in and conquered the region again—so the theory goes—they brought their Latin-based form of French, used by the ruling class, and the old, Germanic language became the sign of the lower, conquered classes. Over the centuries, the “lower class-ness” of the Germanic terms grew to become downright offensive.

Obscenity is often used as a catch-all for pretty much all forms of cussing. However, it does have a more strict definition in legal terms—objectionably sexually explicit materials.

Profanity most commonly refers to language that is blasphemous—offensive to religious beliefs. It comes from the Latin word profanus, meaning “outside the temple.”