I recently hired someone on fiverr, a task outsourcing platform where people will perform various small tasks for a mere five bucks. (I also once again learned the truism that you get what you pay for, but that’s another story.)
While I was on the site I noticed this graphic on the side:
I wondered why fiverr chose to use a swear word, albeit a mild one, in their copy. Many other companies choose to do this as well, often using more extreme words than “damn.” It’s a choice, clearly. It got me thinking about some of the reasons people decide to use profanity in marketing and branding. It can be to:
- Shock – The surprise of seeing an off-color word in professional context gets people to pay attention.
- Be irreverent – The company is going after a demographic that sees themselves as outside the mainstream.
- Create a casual voice – The brand voice is relaxed and unconcerned with professional business norms.
- Come across as a straight talker – When something is called a “no bull---- guide” to a topic or a “damn fine” something or other, the company is making a brand promise of simplicity and usefulness.
In spite of some decent reasons to use profanity in professional messaging, I have a strong aversion to the practice. People who use profanity in personal conversations, especially in ones that don’t involve family members or close friends, can convey the impression of being coarse, a little rude, and even unintelligent. Those negative impressions can carry over to a company that uses profanity too, and customers often don’t want to deal with companies or company representatives that are unsophisticated, abrasive, or ignorant.
Swearing can often divide people into two camps. Some people indeed will be attracted by the irreverence and informal tone, but many others will be strongly put off. I went to a well-attended presentation where the presenter was casually dropping profanities in her talk and even had them printed in her pre-prepared PowerPoint deck. Personally, her use of off-color language distracted me from the content of what she was saying. It made me uncomfortable and set up a barrier to learning. Could I have been the only person in the room of 200+ people who felt the same way? I doubt it, and if so, it seems foolish to needlessly alienate a portion of your audience just to seem casual and cool.
In the end, profanity shows laziness and a lack of creativity. If indeed someone’s motivation for using profanity is to get attention, it is a cheap trick. There are other, more substantive ways to get attention, and there’s other language one can use to convey an irreverent, casual, or straight-talking tone. Obscenities lose their power through overuse, while thoughtful, creative messages reach deeper.