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?
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 Booking.com 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:
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.