For me, it all started with Dollar Shave Club. It arrived on scene with a fresh, new way of doing advertising.
“Are our blades any good?” founder Michael Dubin asked. “No. Our blades are f**king great,” he said without skipping a beat.
Just like that, gone were the days of boring, everyday sundries. Dollar Shave Club—in a single ad campaign—just defined its entire brand with a touch of crass and a bold pronouncement of four-letter words.
And everybody loved it.
Fast forward a few years later: I can easily remember sitting across the desk from Joe, my soon-to-be boss. Fresh out of “I’ve been being a mom for the last decade, juggling four kids and a part-time career,” I was interviewing to become the marketing and communications director for a small, conservative university. I crossed my fingers and hoped this could be the start of my re-emergence into full-time employment.
“Tell me about a brand that has done a great job with advertising,” Joe asked me.
The only brand that came to mind was Dollar Shave Club. They had bucked the system. They thrilled and enthralled. They made their audience laugh and entertained with 90 seconds of advertisement.
But this was a small, conservative university. How in the world could I say the use of “f**king” was refreshing and hilarious and effective?
But, in a typical “To hell with it moment,” I owned my analysis and touted all the grandeur of the ad campaign. Twelve hours later, the job was mine.
GET ON THE EFFING BANDWAGON—OR MAYBE DON’T.
Almost five years after Dollar Shave Club changed the way we talk about shaving, it seems every brand and would-be content marketer has caught on to the trend. Just yesterday, a fellow content marketer desperate for help asked, “How do I write for a client who doesn’t want to use my coveted four-letter words?”
And that’s when everything I’ve been feeling about the proliferation of the crass and crude was confirmed: If it’s true that marketers eventually ruin everything good (like radio ruins all good music), then congratulations, they’ve finally ruined even the crudest language we’ve got.
In Doug Kessler’s almost now ancient 2015 article, “How to Use Swear Words in Your Fucking Marketing,” he points out that the use of swear words can be useful for 7 reasons:
- It carries the element of surprise. (Swear words don’t look like typical marketing, so we lower our audience’s defenses through the introduction of words like “damn” and shit.”)
- It signals confidence. (Essentially, we’re saying, “Hey, we aren’t a brand that worries about the prudes.”)
- It sends a signal to like-minded people. (I swear. You swear. We’re all one big happy family.)
- It signals authenticity. (I once told a friend, “Real people attract real people.” More and more, the world is looking for genuine realness.)
- It’s funny. (Instantly, we’re transported back to our junior high days when we utter words that would cause our moms to wash our mouths out with soap if she were to hear us.)
- It signals writing with a voice. (Let’s be honest. No one was gathering around the pub table to talk about razors until Dollar Shave Club showed up on scene. Interesting language sparks even better conversations. And that’s the goal of any advertising campaign.)
- It adds passion. (Not sure how? Slam your toe into the door jamb. Yeah, now you know what I mean.)
But here’s the deal: When everyone starts using the crass and profane, those 7 reasons become incredibly diluted and irrelevant. Gone is the element of surprise. Gone are the passion and confidence and authenticity. You can’t be one-of-a-kind when everyone is showing up with a pocket-full of curse words. And as content marketers, when we’ve lost the ability to wield the craft of writing without interjecting a four-letter word onto every page, then I have to wonder if we even have the right to call ourselves creatives, brand ambassadors or story tellers.
WHAT REALLY MAKES COPY GREAT?
At the very basic level of story telling lies the ability to get inside a character’s head and speak with a voice that does not belong to us. And the most powerful stories resist the tide of familiarity and refuse the path of the expected. In my own life, this is what has made writers like Shakespeare, E.E. Cummings and Toni Morrison so powerful. They played with words in ways no one else could truly mimic. They arrived on scene and said, “See these words? They are beautiful and powerful and nuanced. They are words you’ve always known, but I am building new worlds with them now.”
Like a giant cedar tree fashioned into a boat for the very first time or the ways Michelangelo manipulated hues on his color wheel—transformative art never rests in the boundaries of the mundane.
Look closely at Kessler’s 7 points, and you'll see that they really aren’t tethered to the use of profanity. They are the hallmarks of any good copy, of any marketing effort that seeks to move beyond the pedantic sandboxes of language.
CAN WE COMPEL WITHOUT OUR BELOVED CURSE WORDS?
As the guardians of language, today’s content marketers must continually ask how to craft and deliver content to audiences in ways that compel action, passion and knowledge. Perhaps I’m wrong or my writer’s intuition is a bit off, but I sense that the prolific trend of the profane is on its way out, that the element of surprise has long passed, and that its use in branding is moving into the clichéd and stale.
“Profanity is usually a sign of weak writing,” says Author Mark Henshaw. “Profanity has become so common in modern media that I feel its inclusion almost never adds anything to an artistic work. Profanity has lost its shock value, rendering it useless as a literary device for character development or delivering emotional impact. Think about it -- why is Rhett Butler's profane dismissal of Scarlett O'Hara's desperate plea at the end of Gone With the Wind so cutting? Because it's the only profanity in the entire movie.”
While I don’t agree with Henshaw that profanity is “usually” a sign of weak writing, I do think his point on timing and placement is well made. Perhaps Copy Hacker's Joanna Wiebe sums it up best when she reminds us that as writers, we don’t have to write to please everyone and that there are times where swearing certainly has its place AND its audience. She urges us to write for the 20 to 35 percent of our audience who will be most likely to convert and engage, and this is the most critical point that I fear many of today’s content marketers are missing. As writers for hire, our audiences are incredibly diverse—left-leaning, right-leaning, religious, non-religious, and everything else in between. Unless we want to narrow our niche to include only those brands that are f-bombing, potty-mouthed fanatics, we’d be wise to remember that the craft of writing can be powerful with words much more expansive than a mere four letters.