Swear words in advertising often attract attention (and complaints!) – But does the context make a difference? And is ‘swearing’ in ads ever acceptable? Read on for some useful advice on how to avoid making the ASA ‘curse a blue streak’ when you use potentially offensive language in your ads.
Mind your ‘F’s’ and ‘C’s’
The ASA often takes note of Ofcom’s research on offensive language when making decisions on whether a particular word or phrase is likely to offend on a serious or widespread scale.
There are some words that you’ll struggle to justify outside of very specifically targeted media – most notably ‘the ‘F’ word’ and ‘the ‘C’ word’. The ASA previously upheld a complaint about a mug with “UNT” printed on it, which, in conjunction with the black C-shaped handle, visibly spelt out “cunt”. They considered that the use of this word, viewed by many as a very strong expletive, in an untargeted medium was unacceptable.
Milder swear words (like ‘damn’, ‘bloody’ etc.) could potentially be considered acceptable in certain contexts, for instance when used in a positive light (i.e. “A bloody good time!”) in a medium that is targeted at adults.
Having said this, swearing is always a contentious issue, and the acceptability of any word will differ between cultures, ages and individuals. This means that anyone looking to use a word or phrase, even in a light-hearted way, must consider the context and their audience very carefully to avoid causing offence.
You don’t have to actually say the words to break the rules. In the past, advertisers have mimicked the sound or the spelling of so-called ‘rude’ words in their ads to mixed results.
One of the most enduring examples of this is Booking.com, who used the word “booking” in place of the word “fucking” (for example, “Look at that booking view!”). Booking.com responded to the complaint stating that they had not used any swear words in the ad, and the ASA agreed that not only was the word “booking” related to their business, the word was sufficiently distinct from the actual swear word that viewers were unlikely to confuse the two.
In contrast, however, back in 2011, The Sofa King fell afoul of the rules for saying their prices were “Sofa King low” [say it out loud], which the ASA considered sounded sufficiently like “so fucking low” to cause offence.
Obscuring the word also might not be enough. An ad which stated “ever thought about f****** working” appearing in untargeted media at the side of roads was upheld by the ASA when they considered that they were likely to be seen as referring to a swear word that many would find offensive, given that the audience wouldn’t be able to appreciate the word they were actually going for (“flexible”).
It’s not what you said, it’s how you said it (and where)
Context and medium both play a key role in considering the acceptability of a word or phrase. One ad for a bed company called Bedworld used the pun “ship the bed” to refer to their free shipping (“You can ship the bed right here”). After investigation, the ASA concluded that the play on words was unlikely to cause serious or widespread offence – but it should still have been scheduled away from children.
However, targeting exclusively at adults doesn’t guarantee acceptability. Spotify targeted specific users who had listened to Lily Allen previously or to similar music when it sent an email notification for a song called “Fuck You”. Whilst the ASA acknowledged that it was the name of a song, they considered that the recipients of the emails were unlikely to anticipate receiving seriously offensive language in a communication from an online music service and therefore upheld the complaint.
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