That warning in the title of this post is NOT hyperbole. It’s not a mere gimmick. So if you’re offended by profanity, you oughta just skip today’s article.
There was a recent blow-up on Facebook about the use of profanity in advertising.
Specifically, one marketer had written an email to his list where he dropped a swear word that’s rather normal in his country, but in the US is considered to be extremely dirty.
A well-known US-based copywriter blew up about it. He considered it beneath him to even consider that the word would ever be used in marketing.
The guy who’d originally used it — in a different thread, mind you — basically said that he didn’t care what this big-shot American copywriter said. That he had a way of talking with his market and his email list, and that it worked for him and his readers. If anyone was offended by his use of language, that they didn’t have to be on his email list.
And naturally, this being the internet, and that being a controversial topic, a hundred people weighed in on either side of the issue…
I wasn’t going to touch it with a ten-foot pole, but then, I had a very interesting video come up in my Facebook feed…
My sister-in-law had shared the video, and further, said she couldn’t wait to buy the book being advertised.
Here’s the video — and YES, it’s PACKED WITH PROFANITY and NOT SAFE FOR WORK! (Which is kind of a funny thing to say to a bunch of folks who mostly work from home… In that case, just make sure any “sensitive” ears are out of ear-shot.)
What do you think? Frankly, I want to buy the book…
And I’m not even vegan!
Here’s my take — and it may be a little unconventional.
I don’t tend to think in terms of good and bad words. Words are sounds. We assign meaning to them, yes. But alone, they are just sounds, or ways to represent sounds visually.
Who assigns meaning? Well, the one saying or writing the words, and the one hearing or reading the words. It’s the shared meaning that matters.
Which brings us all the way around to one of the most important lessons in copywriting: understand your market.
In extremely conservative, reserved subcultures, talking about certain body parts is enough to get you frowned upon and questioned. Traditionally “profane” words carry huge negative meaning.
In other subcultures, not swearing will make you an outsider. The shared meaning of an f-bomb is nearly as innocuous as using the word “the.”
As a marketer, you want to resonate with your readers. And so you speak in the language they speak.
Sure, if you’re using words where the broader culture’s shared meaning is generally negative, you won’t be able to run those ads in The Wall Street Journal. But in a semi-private marketing email to opt-in members of your email list, why not use the language your readers use?
We’re actually teaching our kids this lesson right now, too…
At five and three, my sons both have a mean potty humor streak. They’ll use words like poop and pee intending to get a rise out of us.
And so my wife and I have been emphasizing the layers of meaning that can come from those words.
There’s nothing wrong with telling us they have to go poop. We have a book called “Everybody Poops,” after all.
But when they’re sitting at the dinner table, saying, “Poop, poop, poop, poop, poop, poop, poop, poop, poop…”
That’s pretty rude.
Our five-year-old recently picked up the word “stupid.”
That’s one I’m teaching him to be very careful with.
I use it to describe behaviors and choices in front of him. But I tell him to not use it to describe people. It’s too easy for his mind to just start using it for people he doesn’t like. And you don’t make too many friends that way.
Calling people out on stupid behavior while respecting them as a person, I’m okay with. Looking at stupid behavior and using that to label the person stupid, I’m not.
In high school and college, I became completely desensitized to profanity. And — despite me not using it much with family or in writing — I can let it rip.
But my current take on it comes largely from…
What my dad told me about his use of profanity…
Funny story. My first word was “shit.” My grandma was visiting from out of town. My dad was in the kitchen cutting up vegetables for dinner — my grandma sitting on the love seat in the kitchen nook. He dropped a knife, and saw it falling for his bare foot.
“Oh shit!” he yelled.
He dodged the knife, but I picked it up.
The word, that is.
I ran around the house all day long, in front of my grandma, saying, “Oh shit, oh shit, oh shit, oh shit!”
It meant nothing to me. But it left a big impression on my dad.
From that point forward, he didn’t swear much at all.
After I’d moved out and was visiting for dinner, he told me why.
“Because when I do cuss, I want it to mean something.”
Which goes all the way back to our original discussion…
The marketer who talked dirty to his email subscribers came back later and said that it’s a word he uses so often, it doesn’t mean anything.
In fact, if I remember right, he told his wife and daughter about the controversy he’d stirred, and they laughed. To them, it didn’t mean anything either.
But to someone who doesn’t swear, it means something.
If your list is full of people who it doesn’t mean anything to, it’s merely communicating with your market in language they’re comfortable with.
If you’re speaking though to a list who believes a lot like my dad does, that when you cuss it means something, you’re in a different camp. Be prepared to turn a lot of folks off.
The worst thing you can do?
The worst thing you can do is to write in a way that’s not your natural voice.
Is profanity your thing? Find a market where you can let it flow freely. Or find a way to — for business’ sake — pull it back while still writing or speaking naturally.
If you’re uncomfortable with profanity don’t force it to go after markets where you have to cuss to fit in. Even worse than dropping an f-bomb is looking awkward while doing it.
And rather than get our knickers in a knot from someone else’s use of language, it’s probably better to admit when we’re not a fit for them and just move on.
What do you think? Would be happy to get your comments below.
Yours for bigger breakthroughs,
Editor, Breakthrough Marketing Secrets