Swearing in advertising: the bottom line.

NB: Since we wrote this blog, some of the examples have been removed. That tells you something in itself…

For the sake of advertising can we keep expletives and offensive suggestions a taboo? Some people see the overuse of swearing in advertising as lazy and ignorant; some see it as a sign of intelligence – but should we keep it to a minimum? Because when it’s used in advertising, it can be a bloody useful tool.

Budweiser – The Swear Jar:

Views: 6,115,091

As we’re often told there are ‘no rules’ in advertising but having been tasked with investigating why profanities work here’s a guide to swearing in advertising.

One: Keep it humorous

According to Andersson and Trudgill (Bad Language 1990) there are four types of swearing:

Expletive: used to articulate emotion.

Abusive: directed towards others and often derogatory.

Auxiliary: used in regular speech as regular speech.

Humorous: pretty much the same as the expletive but not derogatory.

Two: Keep on the right side of the ASA

It only takes one complaint to the ASA (Advertising Standards Authority) for them to investigate if a complaint should be upheld or not.

But there are a number of techniques that can be applied to a campaign…

1. Self-censoring

Self-censoring is your safest bet when it comes to the ASA – it’s purposefully blatant and often resorts in people thinking they’ve heard a humorous swear word. A perfect example of this is the One Dollar Shave Campaign (notice how he enforces it with the poster?)

Views: 21,848,979

A well placed ‘bleep’ can seal the joke, but delivery is key:


2. ‘It sounds like’

Wordplay is more of a minefield:


As you can imagine this advert got complaints on many levels. But only one level was upheld and it was ruled the ad ‘must not be broadcast again without a scheduling restriction.’ 32K views later – it certainly got people talking.


Again – a similar approach.

It produced four different types of complaint mostly to do with when/where the add was placed and that the word ‘booking’ ‘had been substituted in place of a swear word.’

But, none of the complaints were upheld.

3. Sexual Insinuation

Like most campaigns insinuation relies heavily on your demographic understanding the reference. It also relies on your demographic not taking offence at such a reference. But how far is too far?

Goodness Shakes and Paddy Power

In 2013 Quiet Storm produced a campaign for For Goodness Shakes which generated a complaint which then resulting in the film being banned.

In ASA’s own words:

‘We concluded that, in the context of marketing for a sports supplement drink and in light of the fact that the ad was likely to be seen by a varied audience, the video was likely to cause serious or widespread offence.’

Breaking CAP Code (Edition 12) rule 4.1 (Harm and offence).

The complaint was upheld.

What’s interesting is that recently Paddy Power are running a similar idea:

Both adverts touch on the same joke yet, to our knowledge at the time of writing this blog, the Paddy Power one hasn’t been pulled (ahem). It was the final scene that took the For Goodness Shakes advert too far. ASA ruled:

‘we considered that many of the other online channels that hosted the video, such as a news and entertainment website, were likely to appeal to a wider audience who would find the references to public masturbation, and particularly to ejaculating on another person, offensive.’

Three: Just say “Fuck it” and do it anyway

The other question we have to ask is is did Quiet Storm really make a mistake?

To quote Quiet Storm:

‘With only £15,000 to spend on social seed­ing, we gen­er­ated nearly 700,000 views in one week, with a sim­ilar volume of PR. And given that there is no such thing as bad pub­li­city, being banned on the basis of just one com­plaint pushed us well over a mil­lion views, and star­ted the PR band­wagon rolling once more. In busi­ness terms, the film proved a potent call­ing card and talk­ing point with retail buy­ers, help­ing For Good­ness Shakes secure listings in all top 5 super­mar­kets and to well exceed their volume expect­a­tions in the process.’

Four: Be clever

All of the video examples discussed so far are a true testament to this,. But I’m going to resort to a print advert to bring this home.

When Virgin ran:

“Cheap enough to say, Phuket I’ll go”:

The Advertising Standards Board ruled (amongst other things):

‘The Board viewed this billboard advertisement and noted that it used the name of a real place and as such the word could not be considered to be obscene.’

‘The Board further noted that using this city’s name was an old joke and one that would not be considered offensive by a reasonable adult.’

It is big and it is clever:

‘About 0.7% of the words a person uses in the course of a day are swear words, which may not sound significant except that as Mohr notes, we use first-person plural pronouns — words like we, our and ourselves — at about the same rate.’ From Holy Sh*t: A Brief History of Swearing by Melissa Mohr.

So is swearing funny?  For me not only is delivery key but swearing is still seen as a taboo (especially in the ‘rising middle classes’ Mohr). So, when we hear it, it provides a release to our normal social constraints and provokes a childish reaction. Simple and very effective. Is there a happy medium? We think so.

Curveball’s words that make us smile but don’t offend:

Tara: Bum tits

Gianna: Arsecrackers

Jack: I don’t have a favourite swear in particular, but I do have a favourite word to put in front of swears; “Thunder” For example “Thunder#*@*”

Martin: Prick

Tom: Mewling Quim

Oli: $#@& “Pillock”

Lols: Up your pyjama’s

Hannah (Hannah doesn’t swear much, Lols does, so this one is from Lols again): #*@*&!!!

Marina: The ‘P’ word that none of us can mention as it’s so, so rude.

Olly: Kumquat

Daniel: Knob Jockey

by Daniel Spencer

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