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To Swear Or Not To Swear: Marketing, The F-Word And Other Language Conundrums

To Swear Or Not To Swear: Marketing, The F-Word And Other Language Conundrums

Warning: language ahead!

I was originally going to title this article: “Don’t Like My Language? F#@% You.” And even though I’d love to try that as a headline A/B test, I didn’t want this to come across as either confrontational or sensational.

The point is not to make a case for “language” in writing but really to explore its effects and why it matters to you, your business and marketing.

Language Is What We Make It

What is a “bad word”? I bet for most of us, saying something like, “Boy, that pisses me off,” is not particularly rebellious but I know people who find that offensive and distasteful.

Others spout the F-word with impunity, about as often as they say “and” or “the”.

Does that make one person rude and the other just a regular Joe?

Well, that depends on your perspective. And why I said that language is what we make it. Along the way we choose the words that “offend” us and the ones we accept.

My dad tells me a story about someone he knew who wouldn’t let any objectionable language cross her lips. So whenever she was angry or emotional she would substitute the word “carrot cake” for a swear word.

Stubbed her toe? Carrot cake! Broke a glass? Carrot cake! Electric bill too high? Carrot cake!

Sounds funny, but really, carrot cake is quite delicious and should not be disparaged like that.

And the question my father always asked was… if Mrs. No Language said “carrot cake” with the same intent as one might say “fuck” then was Mrs. No Language really behaving any better?

The vast majority of people I know have no qualms about saying things like darn, drat, heck, shoot and bummer. But turn a darn into a damn and WHOA! All bets are off.

Why? Not because we’ve angered the gods or spirits or trees but because that’s what we’ve collectively agreed to be offended by.

Language Is Situational

As a kid, I was not allowed to say “heck”, as in “What the heck is that?” And “hell” was the absolute worst of the worst of the bad language I could think to say. One day when I was about ten and in a red rage over something my brother did, I screwed up my courage and squeaked out the word “hell.”

That was immediately followed by me getting my mouth washed out with soap. Yes, that was a thing.

Today I sprinkle the word hell into conversations with my mother and she no longer runs for the soap. I even occasionally slip with the f-word when I’m really, really mad and still, no soap. It probably doesn’t thrill her but the point is that we learn to accept different language in different situations.

Here’s a great example of situational language. During a conversation some time ago with a friend’s then-six-year-old son, I was informed that he was not allowed to say the f-word. As the conversation progressed and he started talking about exercise and health and broccoli, I became more and more confused about what that meant.

It turned out that the f-word in their world was “fat.” A bunch of moms had banded together to prohibit their kids from calling people fat. And thus, a new f-word was born.

I’ll be honest with you – I’d rather someone told me to fuck off than call me fat!

Language And Marketing – Ok Or Off Limits?

Opinions abound on this one. From the likes of Erika Napoletano  whose home page alone manages a shit, asshole and “f&*k yeah”, to others who are notoriously anti-profanity in any form.

Language doesn’t offend me unless it’s used in a hateful or demeaning way. There’s a difference between telling someone to go to hell and saying “that was one hell of a show.”

But it does offend others. And thus the conundrum. Do you censor yourself because you might offend some people or do you speak your mind because that’s who you are?

It depends on how you want to do business and how you define yourself. Some people say that if you swear in your writing or speaking that you’re going to turn people off. And that’s true. But it’s up to you to decide how much that matters.

Some people refuse to eliminate a single f-word from their vocabularies while others will temper themselves “in polite company.” I think most of us fall into the latter category. I know lots of people – myself included – who are plenty colorful in some situations but otherwise controlled when business or polite discourse calls for it.

You have to think about where you fall on the spectrum. And decide how you want to be perceived and whether it matters that some people aren’t going to like it. Maybe the occasional f-word is not worth losing business over. Or maybe it’s not worth doing business with someone you feel that you need to censor yourself for. Only you can make that decision.

When Language Goes Wrong

I get offended by a lot of things. Cruelty. Hatred. Willful ignorance. Insensitivity. Racism and bigotry and closed-mindedness. The f-word doesn’t make the list.

But I do think language can go too far. There’s a difference between colorful language and profanity. You can say a lot without a constant stream of fucks and assholes coming out of your mouth. In fact, I’d argue that language is more colorful when you find alternatives for those common “bad” words we hear so frequently.

If I was known for running around saying “fuck” every time something went wrong but one day threw a “carrot cake” into the equation, that would be a lot more colorful and impactful.

Sometimes we fall back on those words because we’re not thinking creatively. I know for me, when I find myself mired in a long string of one-syllable words that defy polite company, it’s usually because my brain is off and my lizard has taken over.

So if you find yourself stuck in a pool of, oh, seven or so words George Carlin style, it might be time to swim into better territory.

Here’s when I don’t think you should swear…

When you’re doing it just because.

If it’s not part of your personality to begin with.

When you cease to have anything interesting to say and rely solely on the shock value.

When there’s a better way to say what you want to say but you’re too lazy to think of it.

But Seriously, F#$& The Language Police

In reality, it would be nice if we all got to speak as we wanted without fear that the words we chose would lose us business or friends.

But that is not the case. Strangely, people will forgive me for forgetting their birthday but not for saying, “Wow, I fucked up, sorry.”

If you know me or read my blogs or listen to our podcast, you know I may talk about people who piss me off and warn you about some marketing crap to avoid, but you also know that I say the f-word or any other “objectionable” words about as often as I use the word “sardine” or “backpack.” Which means sometimes, if that’s what the sentence or situation calls for. But not all the time so it sounds like I just learned the word sardine and want everyone to know how proud of that I am.

This post is the exception, because I am making a point about language and honestly, it gets a lot more noticeable and tiresome to keep saying “the f-word” than to just say the darn f-word – but on the whole nobody has ever complained about my language. Except my dad, of course, who really hates when I get “pissed off”…

Anyway, I guess the point is that this is the decision I’ve made for me and my business. I don’t want or need to swear like a sailor to make a point, and in fact I find that words like “carrot cake” are much more amusing anyway, but if the occasional f-bomb is going to offend you and burn that bridge, well, it might have been nice knowing you but… have a slice of carrot cake and enjoy your day.

What’s your stand? Are you conscious of the language you use, one way or another? Have you made a choice about certain words you’ll use or not use? Do you worry about losing business over how you speak or are you of the “fuck it” mentality?

I’d love to hear your opinion. Share it in the comments below.

Join the discussion 36 Comments

  • “Marketing Isn’t Spelled with an F”

    Dear colleagues Harry, Dick, and Tom
    Please stop dropping tons of F bombs

    Stuffing your marketing with profanity
    Reads like 50 Ugly Shades of Insanity

    That’s not to say you should never cuss
    But stop and think about the rest of us

    An “F” word here and an “F” word there
    Is better than planting them everywhere

    Your content is a reflection of who you are
    Please don’t get known as the F-bomb czar

    I can hear people cheering, “Fuck, yeah!” 😉

    • *jazz snaps* I’m waiting for your beat poetry tour, Melanie.

    • Yah for fucking poetry! lol, couldn’t resist.

      I really do think there’s a time and place for everything, I mean being that constantly diligent about policing every.damn.thing. you say is exhausting and unnecessary. But that is not free license to sound like a fool. The more people think about their choices and motivations, the better!

  • My business is WTF Marketing. I used to censor myself before I realized what my business was about – 100% unabashed honesty in marketing. Ergo… I feel free to flippantly fling fucks.

    • You’re the exception to the rule, Nick (That’s cause you’re exceptional!) 🙂 Your content doesn’t come across as profane. F words help to drive your points home — oftentimes accompanied by humor and laced with mounds of intellect. Your content is fucking phenomenal! 😉

      Given the nature and name of your business …
      You have a free pass.

    • Krithika Rangarajan says:

      Echoing Melanie, you don’t use the F-word for any of the reasons that Carol outlined above. You are not lazy, you are not saying it to ‘fit in’, you are not saying it to solely SHOCK your readers.

      You use the word to express your frustration, and I ENJOY your post. SO keep flinging the Fs #HUGS (hehe – I say the word in private or with my husband, but I don’t use it in my articles because it doesn’t feel natural)

    • Nick I love your stuff (as witnessed by the very long comments I usually end up leaving about how much I love your stuff!) You are who you are. Not pretending to be anything else and THAT has to be respected. Fucks or not. I wholly support feeling free to flippantly fling fucks and to say that three times fast.

  • Krithika Rangarajan says:

    One of my favorite bloggers is Ash Ambridge of ‘The Middle Finger Project.’

    Her prose is artfully littered with profanities! And I ENJOY reading them…simply because they befit her audaciousness.

    Without taking names, I read a post by a popular blogger who made a case for ‘no profanity.’ While he had some valid points, and I truly love his writing, he also sounded self-righteous and judgmental, which turned me off more than the F-words themselves! Do not dump your superiority complex on us…its Ridikulous (hey, I am on a Harry Potter spree right now 😛 )


    • “Self-righteous and judgmental” people with a “superiority complex” can kiss my butt!! 😉

      So that you and Fred are crystal clear, Krithika …

      The marketers I wrote today’s poem about all the folks who go WAY over the top with profanity — trying to appear “cool” or “badass” or like they’re “tough guys”. Pfffttt! Frankly, that type of behavior doesn’t impress me one bit. It makes most people look ignorant and uneducated, know what I mean? Folks like Ash Ambridge and Nick Armstrong can get away with it because it’s engrained in their branding. When that’s the case, it’s expected and acceptable.

    • Great point, Kit. People who preach a certain “acceptable” way of speaking are definitely sounding judgmental and superior. If being language-free is your thing, just do it. But don’t tell me what to do! Ash is doing it the “right” way – authentically. Not “because”.

  • Sam Oh says:

    Carol, love this 🙂 Since tone is generally louder than words and blogs generally don’t have audio, sometimes dropping f’bombs, s’bombs and a’bombs (not atomic) is just the best way to communicate a feeling.

    It communicates a lot more than bolded words.

  • Carol, my dad always said, “Everything’s relative.” 😉 For me, it depends on the context and the person. An F bomb from someone who rarely uses it could deliver exactly the shock value needed or may be perceived as forced. I also think it can get distracting (again – depending on context). I remember an Eddie Murphy stand-up routine (and boy am I dating myself – remember the red leather outfit?) where I found the f-bombs totally distracting after the 422nd one. And I was young then! LOL! 😉

    • Agreed! Sometimes language packs a punch and sometimes it sounds like… language. I know what you mean about “distracting”. Sometimes you want to say “ok, I get it… pick a new word!” By the way, one of the people who can get away with language like that and be hilarious is Lewis Black. It’s something in the delivery and the unexpected way he does it 🙂

      Oh, and my dad always said… “It’s all relative… but not my relatives.” lol, dads. Love ’em.

  • I would loved to have seen you when you squeaked out the word “hell.” 😉 Eeeeek!

    Ha. ha. I even occasionally slip with the f-word when I’m really, really mad. I usually don’t tell people to fuck off, but I slip.

    “Language doesn’t offend me unless it’s used in a hateful or demeaning way.”
    –completely agree with this. Um, fuck yeah, I do 😉

    • Once in a while it slips out in a conversation with my mom who I would NEVER dream of swearing in front of. Then I have to cough a lot and mumble and pretend I was just stuttering and made a mistake 🙂

  • Hi Carol,

    Wow, love that post and I have to say that’s the best post I’ve read about language, and I agree with you one hundred percent.

    Saying bad words just for the sake of saying them, I don’t think it’s the way to go, but at the same time context can make a difference.

    Now, there are people who naturally use bad words, and it turns out fine for them it seems. As for me, I try not to use profanity in my writing, because I wouldn’t want to shock anyone. However, I know some bloggers who don’t have this problem, and yet their blog is very successful.

    In life, I use bad words when I’m mad (and at times no so mad) and I think that saying “cake” instead of “shit” doesn’t cut it for me.

    Than there is the fact that I speak 3 languages and a bad word in on language is nothing or something else in another, so I have my own philosophy about bad words which are somewhat illusive.

    A seal in French is a “phoque” it’s pronounced “fuck”. The word “with” in Spanish is “con” meaning “asshole” in French. So, a word, good or bad, is just a word.

    • I love that perspective, Sylviane – words that mean something “bad” in one language can be completely different in another. I’m sure when you speak multiple languages it all starts to seem a little silly. I love what you said – “a word good or bad is just a word”. So true. It’s how you use the words that count. People can use perfectly “nice” words to say very horrible things. Or you can use a “bad” word harmlessly. It’s not important to get too hung up on a word. Thanks for stopping by and I hope everything is going well for you. I love your adventure photos on Facebook!

  • Robin Weiss-Conner says:

    You know, I’ve got no problem with bad language,but I think that when it comes to business marketing, you ought to be talented and creative enough to come up with something that sells you without it. It degrades your brand to some, if not everyone, and in my opinion it makes you personally look less talented. I had a boss once who walked me off the edge on this one, and it’s taken some time, but i’ve learned he was right.

  • Leland Olson says:

    I was just writing a post about my days in boot camp, but I’m going to leave out all the FU**ing bad language that they used there. I’m sure the post is going to come across rather poorly, sound like HELL, without all the swearing that was involved there.