How to Slide Your SEO Keywords into Any Piece of Writing Naturally

There’s a lot of good advice out there about SEO keywords.

How to discover them, how to choose them, and how to cram them in.

We’ve got loads of rigid rules about density – telling you exactly how often you need to spam those phrases at your poor exhausted readers, and exactly when you need to stop and dial it down.

But there’s not much advice about how to keep things pretty.

Writing for SEO is a delicate art. You need to predict the search behaviour of thousands of strangers, keep up with your closest competitors – and pretend you have a basic understanding of how Google’s algorithms really work.

But between the complexities of all that hidden machinery, you still need to pump out a pleasant read.

So here’s how to do it without writing like a robot:

Repetition is a spell-breaker

“The thing about car rentals in London is this: car rentals in London are easy to find. So if you’re looking for car rentals in London, be sure to check out our awesome list of car rentals in London by visiting our Car Rentals in London page.”

– Some rubbish SEO writer, 2009

You probably like to think you know a spammy SEO article when you see one.

You can tell when the writer is following an arbitrary rule about ‘keyword density’: aiming for a particular percentage of the content to be filled with their chosen keyword.

But those are just the ones you’ve noticed.

In reality, you’ve probably read hundreds of articles that were packed to the brim with keywords – and you just didn’t realise.

So what’s the trick?

Those articles aren’t obsessed with a single keyword.

Good writers (in any field) don’t like to repeat their words. Just like an accidental alliteration or a fine rhyme, a repetition creates an echo that draws attention to the writing itself.

It disrupts the flow of the writing, and it breaks the illusion of the invisible writer.

In most cases, you’ll be working from a list of keywords – probably a batch that you researched yourself from a useful free resource like Answer the Public or Keyword Tool.

And that’s a great start. But if you want your SEO shenanigans to fly under the radar, you’ll need a wide array of keywords and phrases to choose from (not just the two most popular ones repeated to infinity).

You could carry on battering your readers into submission with a repeated mantra of ‘car rentals in London’.

Or you could be a little more devious – and disguise the density of your keywords by working with a larger pool of keywords to begin with:

“Looking for a hire car in London? It’s easier than ever to find the perfect rental. So if you’re in the city and you need a short-term vehicle, be sure to check out our awesome list of one-day car websites by visiting our Car Rentals in London page.”

Lists are not your friend

“Anyway, like I was sayin’, shrimp is the fruit of the sea. There’s pineapple shrimp, lemon shrimp, coconut shrimp, pepper shrimp, shrimp soup, shrimp stew, shrimp salad, shrimp and potatoes, shrimp burger, shrimp sandwich. That – that’s about it.”

– Bubba Blue, Forrest Gump, 1994

Most copywriters will tell you that lists and bullet points are an amazing tool for readability. When you’ve got a lot of information to get across, they can help you by:

  • Breaking things up into bite-sized chunks
  • Helping your reader to scan to the important bits
  • Organising your information by category or purpose
  • And demonstrating an obvious point about the importance of lists.

But there’s a caveat here:

Lists and bullet points are only useful when you’ve got a lot you need to say. If you’re breaking out into a list just to rattle off every variation of your favourite keyword, it’s going to be painfully obvious – and your readers won’t stand for it.

It might be an effective way of cramming in those keywords. But when you’re writing for SEO, you’re not just writing for robots:

You’re writing for humans who inform those robots.

So if you really must include every single keyword form your research, at least spread them out a little. Give your readers the mental space to absorb your keywords in a leisurely drip-feed – or you might find they’ll back out to Google and find a different article that’s more pleasant to read.

And if you don’t think you have the space to spread out every keyword beyond your high-density list? The solution is simple:

Either make your article longer, with a deeper dive into the topic that covers more useful stuff – or just mercilessly cut out some of the less important keywords.

Longer tails are harder to hide

“Looking for a budget day-hire people-carrier car rental for seven people with included insurance in London for under £50?”

– That same rubbish SEO writer, 2009

Long-tail keywords are fantastic for razor-sharp targeting. And if you can make them work (and rank for them), you can almost guarantee that the people you’re drawing in are ready to buy exactly what you’re offering.

But if you’re trying to shoehorn an absolute hippo into the natural flow of an article, you’re going to have a bad time.

So what’s the solution?

You have a few options – and they’re all a bit shaky:

You can try putting the words in your reader’s mouth:

“You’re probably wondering: ‘Am I ever going to find a budget day-hire people-carrier in London for under £50?’. If that sounds like you, you’ve come to the right place.”

Or you can try splitting your keyword whale across different parts of the same sentence:

“Popping down to London? Get a great deal on our budget car rentals with fees under £50 (including insurance!) – from stylish sports cars to extra-large people carriers.”

But if you really want your insane long-tail keywords to fit into your content naturally?

You need to cut them. You need to ruthlessly slash away the least important parts of that tail, until you’re left with a phrase that sits just inside the boundary of what a real human being would say out loud.

Rigid keywords create rigid writing

This is by far the easiest trick you can use to make your SEO writing more natural.

And sadly, it seems to be the one method that gets overlooked the most:

You need to be willing to tweak your keywords a bit.

These days, Google is sharper than ever. It’s not just scanning web pages for exact matches to the bizarre, disjointed terms that searchers are typing in.

It’s looking for semantic equivalents – it’s looking for context, and it’s looking for relevancy.

If your customers are typing in ‘car rental London’, you’ll be absolutely fine with the more natural ‘car rentals in London’.

If they’re typing ‘cake recipe’, you can use ‘cake recipes’ – it does the same thing.

What you don’t want is to force these clumsy search terms into real sentences that real people might want to read.

If your content starts to sound like broken English, your visitors will start to look elsewhere. And if your traffic suffers, your ranking in Google will suffer, too.

(No matter how many of those awkward phrases you’ve stuffed into your content.)

How Much Truth Should You Hide from Your Customers?

I’m about to say something that may shock and scandalise you:

Some people don’t like marketers.

Some people think that if a business is out to sell, they’re out to deceive. They’re out to mislead, misrepresent, and fool some poor sucker into handing over their money.

Now here’s something that probably won’t shock you:

Some people are right. (Some of the time.)

Lying by omission

If you’ve ever tried to lose some weight, you’ll know how confusing the supermarkets can be.

‘1% Fat!’ screams the label on the yoghurt. But when you read the back, it’s 40% sugar.

‘Now Sugar-Free!’ says your favourite packet of biscuits. But it’s packed to the brim with artificial sweeteners.

‘Made with 100% Whole Grain!’ says the salty snack with the happy sun logo. But every crunchy bite has been deep-fried in oil.

We all know the basics of marketing a product: you focus on the positives, and try not to dwell on the negatives.

But when you know that your target audience has a specific set of conditions in mind (like eating food that won’t put them in the emergency room), you’re being disingenuous if you wilfully hide the parts they need to know.

Healthy food is an easy example. But the same logic applies to just about any product or service where you know what your customers are looking for.

You might be selling software aimed at people on a budget – knowing full well that the features they really want are locked behind pricey add-ons and upgrades.

You could be selling plane tickets for £20 a pop – but you don’t mention the part where you charge £50 to carry a suitcase.

It’s always a good idea to put your best foot forward when you’re marketing a product. But devious tactics don’t go unnoticed for long.

These days, shoppers are happy to stand at the shelves reading nutritional labels. They spend hours scouring online reviews before they buy a new piece of software.

Every single person who’s been burned on an airline luggage charge will remember it for the rest of their lives. And when they find another company that’s willing to lay out their prices clearly, those customers won’t be bothering your business with their money ever again.

Dressing up your ethics

Big businesses are trying hard to look human. They’re focusing on sustainability, local communities, and giving the right pay to the right people in the right working conditions.

They call it ‘Corporate Social Responsibility’. But that’s just another complex piece of jargon for something that’s really a simple idea:

It’s about being the good guys. And of all the trends in marketing we’ve seen over the last decade, it’s the one we should all be happy to stand behind.

But there’s a serious danger here:

As consumers, we’re used to a little exaggeration. We know that marketers need to sell the sizzle, not the steak. So when we hear a company prattle on about its ‘revolutionary approach’ or its ‘ground-breaking innovation’, we’re usually happy to overlook a few inflated claims.

Just don’t think you’ll get away with puffing up your ethical achievements. Because the people won’t stand for it.

We’ve seen car companies launch campaigns promoting their low emissions – and later admitting that the results of the tests were compromised.

Every month, there’s a new accusation of ‘greenwashing’ – from fashion companies to fast food chains.

These businesses might be starting new initiatives with the best intentions. They might simply be making a few mistakes on their path to a more ethical way of working.

But no matter what their initial intentions were, one thing is clear:

If you use your new ethical practices as a promotional tool, you’re inviting a brutal level of scrutiny.

So if you think social responsibility is an important part of your marketing message, make sure it’s watertight. Make sure it’s defensible, and make sure you can justify every claim you’re making.

Implying a USP

Have you ever wondered why so many toothpaste brands come with the backing of so many medical professionals?

They’re always recommended by nine out of ten dentists.

And on the face of it, that sounds impressive. If 90% of experts are endorsing a certain brand, that brand must be a solid choice for the consumer.

But here’s the reality:

Those dentists aren’t just recommending the brand you’re holding in your hand. They’re recommending loads of them at once.

A few years back, one famous toothpaste brand came under heavy scrutiny for claiming that 80% of dentists recommended their product.

And technically, the claim was true. But it wasn’t quite the USP they were implying. The dentists in the survey were allowed to name more than one brand – and one direct competitor was named almost as much as the brand that made the advert.

It’s a bit like that famous scene in the TV series, ‘Mad Men’. When the ad agency was struggling with a concept for their new cigarette ad, they chose to highlight a feature of the product that hadn’t received any attention before:

“It’s toasted.”

What they didn’t tell their customers was that every other cigarette brand also used toasted tobacco in their products. No other brand had ever used that feature as a selling point – and that’s what helped the ad agency to set their client apart from the others.

It’s a scene that’s almost universally praised as an ingenious marketing ploy.

But when you really think about it, it’s pure deception.

They’re not showing off a distinctive feature of the product. They’re not letting their customers know how their product is better than the others.

They’re creating the illusion of a unique benefit. It’s an act of trickery – and it doesn’t give their consumers the respect they deserve.

Ready to sell without losing sleep?

We’re all tempted by shortcuts. We’re tempted by fast results, and we’re sometimes desperate to get a competitive edge.

But consumers are sharper than ever. They’re more perceptive and critical than ever. And if the current climate is anything to go by, they move quickly to outrage – and they’re happy to blacklist any company that thinks they can misrepresent themselves.

So if you’re looking to build a brand based on sincerity and respect, good for you.

Let’s get you some straight-talking copy to help you on your way.

Sex Can Sell – But Innuendo Goes Deeper

Remember those Lynx adverts where hordes of thirsty females were activated with a quick spray of a manly scent?

They’re gone.

So is the long-running soft porn of Abercrombie & Fitch – and the controversial tactics of American Apparel.

After decades of sexual revolutions and social liberations, you’d expect us all to be a little more relaxed when it comes to fifty-foot billboards of lingerie and cleavage.

But here’s the truth:

We can all see straight through it.

Thanks to the hard work of thousands of advertisers (and the infinite dark corners of the internet), we’ve seen just about every naked crevice and bare lump there is.

We’re desensitised to titillation. And when our primal circuit boards aren’t overwhelmed by the naughtiness of a sexually charged ad, it becomes too easy to see what those advertisers are up to.

So what do smart marketers do when their tactics start to fail?

They switch to a new circuit board.

The subconscious has hidden powers

We like to think we’re in control of our own destiny.

We like to think we’re the pilots of our own personal meat-sacks.

But there’s a lot going on beneath the surface of our senses. And sometimes, an indirect suggestion is the one that has the strongest effect.

When you try to sell directly – whether that’s through sex or otherwise – you’re engaging the conscious mind. You’re using the literal meaning of the words you choose (or the images you show) to grab attention and get a clear message across:

And if you remember, ads like this don’t go down too well any more.

But when you sell though indirect means – either through metaphor, implication, or innuendo – you’re putting the subconscious to work. And the subconscious mind does a lot of the heavy lifting when it comes to making decisions and forming opinions.

The ‘Beach Body Ready’ ad is selling through sex. And it’s managed to stick in my mind. But that’s more to do with the outrage and controversy surrounding it – not because of anything inherent in the ad itself. If it hadn’t caused a storm, I don’t think we’d still be talking about it today.

But there’s another sex-based advert that’s managed to stick in my mind – without a single shred of commentary or press coverage:

I saw this advert once, and I haven’t forgotten it.

When I think of mattresses, I think of this advert.

Just like the ‘Beach Body Ready’ ad, it’s selling through sex. But there’s not an inch of cleavage or thigh to be found.

This mattress advert doesn’t need to get itself in trouble to tap into our primal circuit boards. The viewer needs to figure out the obscene connotations for themselves. And this tiny process of connecting different ideas is what cements the experience in our memory, more firmly than any provocative wording or direct sexual imagery.

So if we can see straight through a cheap lingerie ad, why are we so much more forgiving of an ad that uses innuendo?

Innuendo respects the audience

There’s a knowing collusion when you sell with implication.

The advertisers are giving you a wink, and you’re probably winking right back. They know what they’re really saying. You know it too, and they know that you know it.

It’s not particularly big or clever. But it does show a level of maturity and self-awareness that’s lacking in a more direct sexy approach.

And when you get it right:

  • Kids are oblivious.
  • Innocent-minded adults are oblivious.
  • And the ASA doesn’t need to ban it.

All of which goes a long way to minimising the outrage – while still capitalising on the tantalising effect of a sexy sell.

So how can you use it?

In practice, it’s a dangerous game.

And I wouldn’t recommend any kind of sexy selling unless:

  • You’re in a sex-related industry (like selling condoms)
  • You know your target audience inside and out (pun intended)
  • You can limit who sees it (like highly targeted online adverts)
  • Or you’re willing to take risks with your reputation.

But that doesn’t mean you can’t take the psychology of innuendo and apply it in non-sexy ways.

Innuendo is about making your audience forge their own connections: using the literal message as a trojan (XL) horse for the message you really want them to see.

It’s about putting the message in their heads – not on the page.

And if you can bring that same theory to your everyday non-sexual marketing, you won’t need to thrust your message down anyone’s throat.

How to Write a Corporate Apology Without Causing a Riot

I’m not an expert on corporate apologies. And for that, I apologise.

That was pretty easy.

But some companies seem to struggle when they have to admit their failings. They’re robotic and cold. They look for scapegoats and diversions. And sometimes, they don’t really seem to be apologising at all.

So here are three failsafe ways to send an apology out into the world – one that’s honest, sincere, and hopefully a little bit credible.

Pretend you’re a human

Let’s start with a look at some high-profile apologies:

Which of these three headlines feels more sincere, more heartfelt – more appropriate to the severity of a harmful situation?

‘We apologise’ is functional. It informs us of the gesture being transmitted.

‘We are sorry’ sounds a little closer to remorse, and it implies some feelings of guilt.

But ‘We are so sorry’ – this sounds like something real. It sounds genuine and earnest: like someone consoling their bereaved friend.

It’s not just the addition of a modifier (‘so’). It’s also that this is the word-for-word phrase that real human beings use to apologise from the bottom of their hearts.

When you’ve really hurt someone, you don’t say ‘I apologise’.

You might say ‘I’m sorry’.

But if you really care about the person you’ve wronged – and you truly feel awful about what you’ve done – you’ll probably say ‘I am so sorry’.

Of course, you could argue that each of these three headlines is appropriate for each scandal:

Tesco had the wrong meat in their products. It wasn’t dangerous, it was just icky. So a weaker apology doesn’t seem too out of place.

The News of the World was accused of hacking people’s phones to get juicy insider stories.

That’s invasive, but they didn’t get anyone killed. It deserves a strong apology, but perhaps gushing would have felt out of place.

But with Oxfam, things were different. There was an abuse of power, sexual misconduct, and exploitation – and all of it during a time of disaster and crisis in the communities where these things happened.

With so much humanity at stake, it makes sense that Oxfam’s apology should be the most personal. And it makes sense that the rest of their apology advert continues to use the same human and emotive language.

They don’t say that the events are ‘unacceptable’. They say the events are hard to bear.

They don’t say that Oxfam is ‘investigating’. They say that Oxfam is listening.

They talk about the amazing and brave staff who are working in desperate situations without thought for their own safety. They’re not talking about ‘diligent’ staff who are ‘focused on the problem’ – they’re talking about real human emotions and values.

And if they’d left it at a simple ‘We apologise’?

It wouldn’t have felt real or appropriate.

Accept the finger

It’s already pointing right at you. Everyone can see it – and if you try to misdirect it, people will notice.

You’re not writing an apology to blame others. You’re not writing an apology to minimise the offence you’ve caused.

You’re writing an apology to make things right. And that means admitting your failings and taking responsibility.

But this is where things can get tricky. There’s a fine line between owning up to a problem and drawing new attention to it. And there’s a fine line between minimising bad press and sweeping away a scandal.

Tesco explicitly mentioned horse meat in their apology advert. That’s a good sign that they’re fully committed to taking the fall and being transparent with their customers. But for anyone reading it who hadn’t heard of the problem, it’s a seriously damaging bit of PR.

On the other end of the scale, there’s Wells Fargo:

I think it’s got something to do with pushing new accounts on people who don’t need them. But that little nugget of information is buried so deep in the text – and is stated so ambiguously – that we can’t be sure what really went wrong.

(And so we can’t really be sure how much wrong they’ve caused.)

On the one hand, that’s great for Wells Fargo. Anyone who sees this ad will remain blissfully unaware of any wrongdoing. They’ll have a vague understanding that something went wrong – but without any of the usual juicy gossip, they won’t make it to the end of the advert before they lose interest.

But for anyone who knows what happened (or for those who were affected by it), this advert could leave them deeply unsatisfied.

There’s no apology. No explanation for their actions. There’s an admission of failure and a promise that things will be better. But it all seems a bit tight-lipped – and there doesn’t seem to be any real remorse or regret.

Make it about us

You’re up there on the podium, miked up and sweating. We’re down here on the picket-line, screaming for your blood.

There’s an invisible line that separates the plaintiff from the perpetrator. And if you don’t make an effort to cross it, your apology will fall flat.

Let’s go back to the News of the World:

Or maybe we can look at AirBnB:

Notice anything missing?

Now take a look at this:

You should feel a stark difference – even if you can’t quite put your finger on it.

So what’s missing?

It’s you.

You don’t feature in any of those first examples. But you’re in almost every paragraph of the Facebook apology.

It might seem like a trivial point to make. But really, that difference can mean everything.

Without addressing the people you’ve affected, your apology becomes hollow. It’s an abstract description of a mistake, devoid of any connection to the real world and the consequences you’ve created.

So at the very least, try and follow this simple formula:

  1. We messed up.
  2. You didn’t deserve it.
  3. We’re going to try and fix it.
  4. You’ll get compensation.

That’s a healthy balance of negative-us and positive-you: two essential ingredients in any strong apology.

And if you’re willing to address us directly and honestly, we might finally let you down from that sweaty podium – so someone else can take your place.

Should We Feel Good about Selling Through Fear?

They’re coming to get you.

The germs, the environment, the terrorists, and the tax man. They’re all lying in wait, ready to lunge and pounce into your complacent, everyday life.

But Don’t Worry™:

There’s a handy solution for every exaggerated fear, and a fat chunk of profit for every shaky solution.

Selling through fear is nothing new. And it’s nothing inherently evil. But just like most things in life, there’s a huge scope for abuse.

Here’s how they do it:

The jab-jab-swing

There’s a common basic structure behind every attempt to sell through fear.

It goes a bit like this:

  1. There’s a risk.
  2. There are painful consequences.
  3. There’s a solution.

There’s nothing wrong with framing your message around this three-part structure. And once you start to recognise it, you’ll see it everywhere:

The problem comes when companies start to blow any (or all) of these three things way out of proportion. So let’s take a look at each of these three elements, and see where things go wrong:

Calculating the risks

How many times have you had food poisoning in your life?

I bet you could count them on the fingers of two hands.

But if the implications of this Food Standards Agency advert are true, we ought to be getting sick every time we do a bit of amateur cooking:

It’s a commendable advert that uses an inventive demonstration to send a powerful message. But they seem to have left out an important part of the risk-equation:

If it’s that easy to spread germs on the walls, the doors, and your face, shouldn’t we all be getting sick every day?

Now, I’m no scientist. But I don’t think that coming into contact with a few cells of salmonella guarantees illness every time. If that were the case, we’d probably be extinct by now.

So while they might be right about how quickly and easily dangerous germs can spread, it doesn’t feel like they’re being completely honest about how dangerous those spread germs really are.

Of course, the FSA isn’t really trying to ‘sell’ anything directly. They’re trying to improve awareness and reduce disease. Or if you want to get cynical, they’re trying to reduce the strain on the NHS’ budget while keeping as many economic drones in work for as many days of the year as possible.

But when you see something like this next advert, you really have to wonder if they’re giving us a fair assessment of the risks:

Again: I’m not a scientist.

But did this advert really suggest that using an ordinary sponge is the equivalent of wiping down your kitchen counter with a raw chicken leg?

Please. This is how you encourage entire countries to develop OCD.

Concerns are real. Risks exist. Facts are great, and statistics are even better. But if you want to drive terror into the hearts of the masses to boost your profits, at least make sure that the risks are realistic.

Presenting the consequences

We all know what happens if you mess around with raw chicken. It’s a grim condition, and it feels awful for a few days. But unless you’ve got some other worrying medical condition, the vast majority of people pull through and recover without anything serious happening to them.

Some adverts, however, go all out, showing you only the most extreme consequences that could possibly happen.

This is a warning – the next advert is graphic and shocking:

That’s some nasty imagery. And this advert was so brutal that it was restricted from being shown on TV before 9pm.

Now, I need to be careful here:

I’m not saying that wild driving isn’t dangerous. I trust other drivers about as much as I trust my guts during a bad case of food poisoning.

I look both ways when I cross a one-way street – and I watch the wheels of the waiting cars, even when I’m heading towards a little green man.

Reckless driving is a real problem. And we all know there’s a good chance you’ll have a serious accident if you drive like you’re in a high-speed pursuit.

But how often will a class of schoolkids be sat in a tight cluster in the perfect shape of the car that’s barrel-rolling towards them?

I wholeheartedly commend the intention behind this advert. And even the most die-hard horror movie fan is likely to be shocked into thinking about road safety when they watch it.

But you have to admit that these particular consequences are massively overblown. If this were an advert from a car company showing off its advanced safety features, people would be even more outraged than they already were.

Instead, it’s an advert promoting road safety: so we’re tempted to give it a free pass.

They could’ve shown this reckless driver tearing through a school zone while a couple of kids crossed the road. Or speeding round a bend and smashing head-on into a packed school bus. These are equally fatal scenarios, but they’re also believable. These consequences aren’t guaranteed – but at least they’re reasonably likely.

Of course, the makers of this ad wanted to really shake you up. It works, but you have to wonder if they went a bit too far this time.

In comparison, here’s another road safety advert from New Zealand. It’s just as chilling, but this one shows us the dangers of speeding with consequences that are far more realistic:

There’s no ‘2 Fast 2 Furious’ barrel roll. No dense assembly of cute kids at a picnic in a park. Just a single car pulling out from a junction with an innocent child sitting in the back.

And if you ask me, it’s more effective.

The conversation surrounding the first road safety advert was derailed by an analysis of its grotesque violence and excessive shock value. People were talking about whether the advert should be shown, not whether we should all slow down when we drive.

The first advert drew so much attention to itself with its graphic imagery that viewers forgot about the real message the advert was trying to send.

And of course: it was so grisly that it ended up being restricted on TV – limiting the number of people it could’ve reached with that message.

The second advert stays closer to its true message. It doesn’t distract you with the vicious slaughter of twenty younglings. Instead, it focuses on the real issues – the lack of control and reaction time when you drive too fast, and the importance of being aware of your speed before it becomes too late.

The consequences of a troubling situation are important in any sales pitch. But if you’re going to present consequences, they need to be credible.

Wheeling out the solution

Now we’re on to the real purpose of any advert: the bit that makes the bad go away.

If you’ve been wiping down your kitchen counter with a raw chicken leg, you’re probably right to be concerned about germs. So what’s a terrified parent supposed to do?

That’s easy: give in to your deepest fears and spend more money on a special product:

‘It has a special germ-killing formula other liquid soaps don’t. And it’s hardly worth getting soap on your hands if you’re not killing germs.’

That sounds reasonable. But in reality, it’s rubbish.

It’s absolutely worth getting soap on your hands if you’re not killing germs. Hundreds of scientists and medics have come together to tell us that anti-bacterial soaps are useless, and that plain soap and water is the best way to protect against illness.

But when you’ve got a borderline-neurotic fear that germs will permanently maim your precious offspring, any soap that boasts special protective properties is an anaesthetic to your anxiety.

Your soap might kill 99.9% of germs, and I’m happy to believe that’s true. But that’s just irrelevant overkill – don’t pretend that our kids are any safer with your soap than they are with an everyday soap that’s cheaper.

Sadly, things aren’t much better in any other industry, either:

Coca-Cola’s Vitamin Water claimed that its sugary beverage could promote healthy joints and reduce the risk of eye disease – but there were no doctors giving it out in hospitals.

L’Oréal claimed that their expensive range of skincare products could provide anti-ageing benefits by targeting their customers’ genetics – whatever that means.

And Mars Petcare claimed that their particular brand of dog food would help your favourite pet to live 30% longer – a scientific revolution that should have earned a Nobel Prize.

These solutions sound fantastic (in both senses of the word). But can these advertisers honestly say that the benefits of their solutions were sincere?

So when is it OK to sell through fear?

‘Fear’ is a strong word. And you can apply to it to almost any situation where there’s a problem to be solved.

Are you afraid of disease? Buy our anti-bacterial soap and drink our Vitamin Water.

Are you afraid of becoming ugly and wrinkly? Buy our gene-boosting sci-fi skincare products.

Are you afraid of losing a loved one? Buy our youth-potion dog food and stop driving like a maniac.

It’s normal to frame the problem your product solves as a worrying situation. It’s an established formula that’s worked since the dawn of sales. But you need to keep a tight rein on the way you present that problem.

If you’re going to sell through fear, you need to have:

  • Realistic risks
  • Credible consequences
  • And a sincere solution.

Drunk drivers will probably crash at some point. That’s a realistic risk.

If they’re caught, the legal aftermath will be severe. That’s a credible consequence.

And if you never drink and drive, you’ll never cause a drink-driving accident. That’s a sincere solution.

But if you think you can make more money by pretending that germs will always get you, sickness will always kill you, and every other soap is utterly worthless?

You’re probably right: you’ll make plenty of money.

But that doesn’t mean you should feel good about it.

How to Get Away with Swearing in Advertising

The world is full of bad people.

There’s war and murder happening every day, and it hasn’t been that long since the last genocide.

But despite all of this, some people like to get really miffed about swearing.

They complain about it in films, TV shows, newspapers, and adverts.

They get great works of literature banned from school libraries, and they’d rather abuse their own children with a soap sandwich than let them say a few arbitrary sounds in a certain order.

But as much as people hate it, swearing gets attention.

And advertisers love getting attention.

So what do smart marketers do to avoid the backlash and responsibility of using swearing in their ads?

That’s easy:

They make you say it instead.

Here are three shining examples of how to put filth into your customers’ minds and mouths:

Hidden in plain sight

Be honest: you didn’t expect this from Oxfam.

They’re a wholesome bunch with an admirable cause, doing what they can to fight poverty and injustice all over the world.

They’re usually staffed by kind and gentle folk – and they’re usually visited by families and cheery older people.

So when a brand like Oxfam challenges us to ‘Give a shift’ (Give a shit), it’s a mild but refreshingly rude slap to the senses.

It’s just enough to give a gentle wink to everyone who’s in on the collusion. But importantly, it’s buried deep enough below the surface that it shouldn’t cause anyone any serious offence.

How did they get away with it? Let’s start with the obvious reason:

1.    It works perfectly both ways

Whether you take it literally (by volunteering) or through its ruder alternative (caring about the cause), the ‘Give a shift’ message makes total sense.

Both possible readings work towards the same goal (getting more people involved). And that means that – unlike plenty of other implicitly rude advertising messages – it doesn’t just feel tacked on.

You don’t feel like the person who wrote it was trying to shoehorn in a rude second meaning just for a cheap effect. It feels like they’ve seen a natural similarity between two phrases relevant to their objective, and they’ve capitalised on that similarity.

It just so happens that one of those phrases is a rude one.

2.    It’s not the worst word out there

You wouldn’t say ‘shit’ in a job interview. But I’m more than happy to write it down in a professional blog post about swearing.

You’d probably use it around your parents. And when your kids are approaching adulthood, you’ll probably use it around them, too.

Sixty years ago, Oxfam might have landed themselves in trouble with a campaign like this.

But these days, you can take a 12-year-old along to the cinema for a young-adult adventure that drops a few S-bombs (which the BBFC considers ‘mild’ bad language).

3.    It’s innocent-friendly

I’ll bet their cheeky wordplay has passed over plenty of heads. Young children, pure-minded adults, and conservative literalists.

And that’s a good thing.

If you’ve created a double entendre marketing message that can be repeated by children at volume without consequence – and still get a few giggles out of the parents – you’ve hit the jackpot.

Stealthy on the page, filthy on the tongue

There’s often a disconnect between what’s written down and what we say out loud (or what we ‘say’ inside our heads when we read).

And some brave advertisers are fond of abusing this distinction.

Sometimes, the rude phonetics are subtle – like when Verizon tells us we don’t need to settle for ‘half-fast’ (half-arsed) internet speeds:

And sometimes, they can’t be missed – like when describes their ‘booking epic’ holidays:

(‘It doesn’t get any booking better than this. Look at the view – look at the booking view!’)

So what’s the problem?

Taken letter by letter, these adverts shouldn’t offend anyone. The bad language is implicit, just like our other examples.

But in practice, the use and context of these tweaked words is far too close to the foul-mouthed reality of what they’re trying to emulate.

When you take your kids to Sainsbury’s and they start screaming that they ‘don’t want any booking peas’, you’re going to be embarrassed.

And when they tell your mother-in-law that her slow-cooked stew was ‘half-fast’, you’re going to be – well, you might enjoy that one.

The problem with adverts like these (as well as the infamous ‘Sofa King Low’ and ‘Phuket, I’ll go’) is that they’re not really innocent-friendly.

Just like Oxfam’s ‘Give a shift’, the rude joke might pass over a few heads. But unlike the Oxfam example, anyone who doesn’t get the joke will be inadvertently putting filth into the ears of everyone around them.

The people who hear these phrases will think they’re hearing actual dirty words – and that means the end result is exactly the same as genuine, intentional swearing.

If you seek Amy…

We’ve all heard an ‘Oh, shit’ slip out from a teacher, a parent, or a politician.

But for the most part, there are a few words that are still so taboo that you just won’t hear them in polite discourse.

Here’s one of them that didn’t quite make it onto a 48-foot billboard:

What’s that?

No, you filthy animal, that’s just short-hand for ‘See You in the Northern Territory’.

As you’d expect, this advert caused some uproar.

Is it obscene? Sure.

Is it a cheap shock tactic designed to attract more attention than they could normally get? Probably.

Did it work? It certainly seems so.

The difficulty with judging this particular cheeky advert is that – at least in Australia and the UK – the rude word in question lives a double life on the streets.

To some, it’s considered the most offensive word in the language.

To others, it’s a playful term of endearment that’s used every day.

The idea of the word ‘shit’ appearing in a black-and-white TV show used to be unfathomable – but it’s now perfectly fine for 12-year-olds at the cinema.

So why wouldn’t we expect the same effect to trickle down to every word that was once considered too abominable to say out loud in public?


Wrong again – that’s short for ‘What’s the future?’.

As the S-bombs in kids’ films continue to multiply, they slowly chip away at our Victorian sensibilities, paving the way for more S-bombs, more F-bombs, and more MF-snakes on MF-planes.

(And eventually – but probably last of all – more See-You-in-the-NTs.)

At some point, ads like these will stop being seen as cheap shock tactics.

They’ll become just another part of having a ‘cheeky tone of voice’ – like this sublime apology from KFC last year:

One day, we won’t be shocked to see the word ‘shit’ written on a billboard. Without any asterisks, and without any deceptive wordplay.

We won’t be so easily jostled by an arrangement of letters or a particular human sound – and we won’t waste our efforts writing endless letters of complaint to the ASA, the BBFC, or the Queen.

We might all realise that swearing is fun. It’s therapeutic and dramatic, and the only reason it does any alleged harm is because we all give it the power to do so.

In other words, we might all just grow up.

And if you ask me, it’s about phuken time.