swearing child

You cheeky fudger: Expletives in advertising

Why have brands and agencies been tapping into the art of (almost) swearing over the years?

By conor nichols

Fuck. Not a typo or exclamation of annoyance, contempt, or impatience - as the Oxford Dictionary defines it - but rather the most used swear word in the UK. This is hardly surprising - we all have a lot to be fucked off about, after all.

If I utter this word, or any other of its naughty siblings, eight more times today then I will hit the daily British average (10). While we are statistically more likely to swear at home (40.5 per cent) than when out with friends (15.9 per cent) and even more inclined to swear at ourselves (perhaps we need to practise some self-love), profanity is very much at the heart of our language nationwide and globally.

“Wash your mouth out.” “Go straight to the headteacher’s office.” Phrases we’ve heard as a result of their offensive nature. And yes, the words can cause distress and be used abusively, but in the right context they can be extremely funny and necessary for our self-expression, no matter the age. Olivia Colman, star of the recently released Wicked Little Letters which is packed full with profanity, feels that it's not a sign of a “diminished vocabulary”, but instead “fun” and “enjoyment”. “I see it as a seasoning,” the Academy Award-winning actress added.

But there is undoubtedly an art to using swear words. Timing, relevance and the way they sound coming out of a particular person’s mouth. We all know that internal wince brought on by an f-bomb out of place. The same “law” applies to their use in advertising.

Over the years, brands have alluded to foul pieces of language - the Advertising Standards Authority has ensured that this is the closest companies can get to using actual profanity - and the best examples of these pieces of marketing have really hit the mark, both with regards to humour and cutting through the noise. The best naughty-language advertisements are effective because they are both intelligent and creative, regardless of the few people that have been offended as a side effect. Brands can use swearing as a tool to stand out and convey authenticity, making them more relatable and honest to consumers - a vital trope in 2024. While some of the most classic ads were banned by the ASA for using words or phrases that were too similar to the expletives being alluded to, people are still talking about them nonetheless. 

Burger King’s King great burger poster. What a King good idea.

Booking.com’s booking good deals ad, which received 2,500 complaints but was not banned on the basis that it was “light-hearted” and that children would be too young to pick up on the joke. How the book did they get away with that one?

Tesco Mobile taking a jab at big mobile networks for taking the pistachio for raising their bills two years ago. Ads featuring the formerly mentioned nut and the word ‘shitake’ were banned. A fettuccine poster, however, was deemed to be a more “obscure” choice to allude to swearing and was ruled not to breach ASA code. Fair fettuccine play.

Green Flag reassuring consumers that it is there for you when your flipping car fudging goes kaput. Surprisingly, this spot did not receive a rap on the knuckles because the words were “sufficiently different to the expletives alluded to” and were not judged to be “likely to cause serious or widespread offence”. Green Flag and its agency Engine Creative swerved out of the fudging way of that one.

Slightly older examples, but definite classics, include the ‘Beaver Espana’ ad for Club 18-30 by Saatchis and Ann Summers’ ‘Ride a cock hoarse’ poster - a somewhat unsubtle but humorous nod to the nursery rhyme ‘Ride A Cock Horse To Banbury Cross’.

Cuss words being used in campaigns is nothing new - given the FCUK controversy that took place in the industry some 20 years ago - AMV co-founder David Abbott wrote a damning open letter to Campaign in response to the publication awarding FCUK its ‘Advertiser of the Year’ accolade. One notable sentence read: “That’s the way to sell a youth brand, though haven’t I seen it FCUKing before on the lav walls?”

So, do the ‘rotten words’ still serve a King purpose in advertising? Or are they now a bit too booking close to the line? And how do you distinguish a fudging good swearing ad to a flipping shitake one. We ask a fettuccine good bunch of industry creatives for their takes. (I’m not sure the last one worked).

Andy Jex, chief creative officer, TBWA\London

First off, I’m deeply offended by swearing in ads. But only by the ones that are shit. I love all the others.

Let me explain. Swear words are a normal part of everyday life and deeply connected to being creative with language and being funny. Brands are drawn to use them because they help them immediately stand out. It’s an easy way to provoke.

But it’s deeper than that. Swearing can make a brand feel more down to earth, normal, open and honest. And as a result more likeable and trustworthy.

When it’s done wrong, that’s when I take offence. It comes down to the feeling it leaves you with. I’m left with one of two emotional outtakes when I see swearing in ads. The first is that’s fucking funny, it’s smart and relevant. As a result, I feel more connection to the brand and like them more. The other is an overwhelming feeling of being cheap and lazy. It feels completely unconnected to the brand, it’s only there for the sake of it. It doesn’t feel big or clever. It makes the brand feel grubby.

Admittedly this is a massive divide. It’s like the difference between Malcolm Tucker from “The Thick of It” and that kid in the playground that swore once awkwardly because that’s what the cool kids do.

Some of these examples here fall into the latter category for me. They’re lacking the smartness, relevance and the wit. They’re also one offs. That’s not to say one-offs don’t work: KMART’s 'Ship my pants' is genius because it’s a product story.

The VW 'Bollocks' ad is great because it’s born out of a real behaviour.

And Virgin Atlantic’s 'BA don’t give a shiatsu' is ace because it pokes fun at the competitor and tells me new news about the brand. I like them for their challenger underdog spirit.

But the real shining lights for swearing in ads are the ones that actually drove the brand and sales forward for many, many years.

Castlemaine’s endline was 'Australians don’t give a XXXX for anything else'. It’s clever, inextricably linked to the brand, bang on tone and says a lot about the product and led to great work. Amazing.

FCUK is incredible. It’s born from the brand's name; it gives the brand a punch and provocative tone to stand out in high street fashion and became a label to proudly brandish.

Nicky Bullard, group chief creative officer, MullenLowe Group UK

I remember when The Sex Pistols swore on Thames TV’s Today programme and the nation was ROCKED. I was 8 and loved it obvs.

In advertising though, I think 'Australians wouldn’t give a XXXX for any other lager' was the first mainstream tickle of ad swearing naughtiness that I remember. Great stuff.

Then FCUK.

Now that was genius from Mr Beattie et al and wasn’t just a campaign but a whole rebrand; one we felt in culture and wore with pride. Incredible.

Yes, we’ve seen the KFC work (amazing, and a gift).  Heard the banker joke. But are they that naughty?

I grew up in a Catholic household.

That means we swore a lot.

But never the C-word. Although I remember my mum saying it once when someone pulled out in front of her at a junction. Which if you met my sweet, tiny, lovely mum you’d know the impact of that.

And I think that’s my point.

If you want it to be shocking and disruptive and as powerful as it can be, use expletives sparingly. Be out of place. Make it come from the mouth (or brand) of an angel.

Ian Heartfield, founder and CCO, New Commercial Arts

It’s a risk averse, nanny state world. A good way for a brand to push against it is to look like they’ve somehow got one over ‘the system’. Getting a swear word past the authorities, or alluding to one, can make a brand look like a bit of a rebel, give it an air of anti-authority. And who doesn’t like to think of themselves as a bit of a maverick? I think they need to be used intelligently though, swear words for swear words sake don’t really cut it and will be seen for what they are-a cheap trick. The latest Economist poster - which reads "For fact's sake" - falls into this trap. It's not clever or witty, and when you consider where the Economist used to be, that’s a real shame. Of course, in the case of our Nationwide spot it’s just part of the storyline. And besides it’s not a swear word, someone just couldn’t spell the word banker - your honour.

Frances Leach, creative director, VCCP

As we all sit around effing and blinding at our desks, it’s easy to think that is how the rest of the world talks. But try dropping the F-Bomb in front of your grandma or your child’s primary school teacher at parents’ evening, and you are quickly reminded it’s not.

So if we’re going to use the nuclear option we need to use it responsibly. If you’re going to swear in an ad, you’re screaming for my attention, so you’d better have something good to say. That’s why I love the GIRLvsCANCER work, ‘Cancer won’t be the last thing that f*cks me’. Written with the authenticity of two mates chatting to each other and with the anger a cancer sufferer might feel. Guess what f*ckers, people with cancer have sex too. It shouted at me while it kicked me right in the ****. I thought about it for ages. Job done. But when sweary puns are used to advertise the latest sale discounts, doesn’t it become a bit of a cheap trick and a race to the bottom?

Dan Watts, executive creative director, Pablo London

Persuading someone to do something, needs smart insightful thinking and a clever use of words to relay that thinking. So if ‘expletives’ are used to serve a clever idea, go for it.

When Kmart in the US, encouraged people to ‘Ship Their Pants’ in store we laughed along thanks to a crude but witty observation that never really felt offensive. The ‘swear word’ was used to sell the product benefit in a direct and entertaining way. Everyone was shipping their pants left right and centre thanks to free in store shipping.

The problem is when you use swearing for the sake of it. To be ‘controversial’ or to fill the lack of creative thinking. A generic shortcut to comedy or a lazy way to direct anger. Sure you might get noticed, offend a few people and get in the Daily Mail, but do you really want to be the Jeremy Clarkson of adverts?


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