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  • Writer's pictureDan White

Swearing in copywriting. Mighty good, or mighty bad?

There’s a rule in the American film industry that dictates that for movie to keep a PG-13 rating, it’s only allocated one ‘F-bomb’.


Once you know this, it’s hard not to look out for them - and then to silently judge quite how well the director has dropped their single swear word. From a masterful stroke of genius to thinking that it was s**t. The bottom line is that, rather than diminishing the power of the profanity, the restriction greatly increases the impact of the F-bomb.


When it comes to your comms, the issue of swearing is no different. When to use them, when its best avoided and if you go down this route, what do you f***ing say? Let’s find out by shining the spotlight on a well known brand who’ve given two fingers to polite society.


THE TLDR LESSONS FROM THIS POST:

  • Swearing in your copy can be risky but also bloody rewarding

  • There’s rules and regulations you need to adhere to if you’re running Ads

  • But there’s ways to get round them. Scroll down to find out how.

KFC’s FCKing crisis


A KFC Bucket with the letting altered to read FCK.   The caption reads - We’re sorry. A chicken restauitn without any chicken. It’s not ideal. Huge apologies to our customers, especially those who travelled out of their way to find we were closed. And endless thanks to our KFC team members and our franchise partners for working tirelessly to improve the situation. It’s been a hello of a week, but we’re making progress, and every day more and more fresh chicken is being delivered to our restaurants. Thank you for bearing with us. Visit kfc.co.uk/crossed-the-road  for details about your local restaurant.

In February 2018, KFC had a bucket-load of problems. Breaking part of KFC’s supply chain meant a national shortage of chicken that so many people relied upon. 900 restaurants closed and the brand was taking a beating, with negative brand sentiment spiking, so KFC turned to their creative agency to help. Realising they needed to come up with a solution that was both rapid and apologetic - something that could be circulated to as many prospective customers as possible.


The response of the agency was inspired and edgy, aiming for a combination of honesty and humility, and drawing on the potential for spicy humour in the transposition of the initials of the company. For the campaign, the marketing material was emblazoned with FCK, perfectly reflecting both the initial internal reaction of the company to the crisis and the message the company wished to relay.


THE IMPACT

After publishing ads in only The Sun and the Metro, the ad went viral being shared over 219 million times, picking up a ton of additional coverage as a result. All in all, the collective level of interest in their brand spiked to its highest point since 2004.


A Google trends graph shows the spike in searches for KFC

Far from coming across as offensive or provocative, the suggestion of the swear word in the advert instead generated goodwill amongst KFC’s customer base which apparently perceived the cheeky wordplay as a winning combination of confidence and contrition. This perception relied significantly on the subversive twist on the company title, which the company has repeatedly play on.

Would this have worked as well as if they’d just led with saying sorry?


How to Get Away With S**t

Swearing isn’t appropriate for every brand. Although the English language provides us with a wild array of swears, unfortunately those that make the rules have decided that there’s some words and phrases that just aren’t allowed to be used in advertising.


Before you forge ahead, have a read of the Committees of Advertising Practice (CAP) guidelines:


Read them? Right – now how you might get around them…

In their illuminating article ‘How to Swear in your Farking Ads’, bandt.com suggests four ‘methods’ to get the benefits of using subversive language in your marketing without falling foul of the regulators.

METHOD 1: ‘the forking switch’, whereby the swear word is replaced by a similar sounding, but more innocuous word. For example (as the method’s title suggests) the use of the word ‘fork’ instead of… well… fuck, or another example from KFC who cunningly exploited the more explicit rhyme that can be made of the word ‘bucket’.

METHOD 2: The one employed by KFC in twisting their initials into a provocative shape. This method was pioneered by French Connection in 1991 when they used the initials FCUK, first in internal communications and then, when they realised the edgy potential, in their wider branding. METHOD 3:

Instead of replacing the controversial word with a similar sounding alternative, another technique is to actively draw attention to it by simply bleeping it out or dubbing it. A strategically placed asterisk or grawlix is the key to this in copywriting. ‘Grawlix’ is a neologism referring to the use of %$£&ing typographic symbols to mask the offending letters. First used in comic books, it’s now become a recognised signifier of shouty swearing.

METHOD 4: Simply inventing new words that sound a little sweary. This is a staple of television and film where scriptwriters want to convey the emotion and realism of swearing but still produce a TV series that goes out before 9pm, or a film that kids are allow to see. The most famous example of this is the 1970s prison set sitcom Porridge, when the writers Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais invented terms such as ‘nerk’, ‘naff’ and ‘scrote’ to replace swear words without compromising the gritty setting. Interestingly, in outlining their four methods, bandt.com were careful to censor some swear words but not others. ‘Bollocks’ was left exposed, whilst ‘f***’ received the asterisk treatment. This implies a hierarchy of swearing, with some words more acceptable than others, a tightrope that companies walk. Knowing how edgy to be, in short: what they can get away with, is a key part of the strategy of using swear words in marketing. When a company discovers that balance (often pushing the boundary of what is expected) the technique can bring rewards.

What swearing can bring It’s clear that you don’t have to go all Tarantino with your use of swear words. In real life they are often used as a form of punctuation, but in marketing, when deployed sparingly using the right technique, they can have a positive effect. So, what are the qualities that swearing can bring to copywriting?

SURPRISE AND HUMOUR The two go hand-in-hand. Swearing doesn’t have to be shocking or offensive. If deployed correctly and thoughtfully, it can bring a cheekiness to copywriting. With humour comes trust and the desire to read on.

PASSION Too often, marketing is conducted by committee and the resulting marketing material is bland and generic. Even if a committee approved it, the judicious and witty use of swearing gives the suggestion of passionate individuality. This passion gives the impression that the person behind the idea genuinely loves the brand they promote.

EMPATHY Swearing can make a brand feel more connected to the public and vice versa. We all live in the modern world not in a Jane Austen novel, so swearing isn’t uncommon. The careful use of swear words in copywriting, therefore, gives a company an authentic tone of voice - remember that the KFC/FCK switch reflected the reactions of the company behind the scenes – with transparency comes authenticity.

CONFIDENCE A confident brand is a stable brand. Not every company can get away with the path that KFC and French Connection took, but look at the effect it had. KFC, in particular, turned a crisis into a masterstroke of marketing through wordplay. Far from bringing the company down, the strategy gave KFC a burst of publicity that emphasised the confidence and defiant resilience of the brand.

 

Swearing in marketing is like navigating through a minefield to get to a goldmine: dangerous and fraught with peril, but when carefully done can lead to a treasure trove of benefits. If you want to know how to get there without fucking it up then contact us here.

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