When the sweary, sarcastic Deadpool crashed into our cinemas in 2016, it took over $130 million in its opening weekend, making it the biggest opening for an R-rated movie ever. With the second instalment proving just as successful, Stephen Kelly gets down and dirty, exploring how you can swear your way to an unforgettable campaign.
The metaphorical nation state of Marketing is, by and large, a neutral power — and the language that’s spoken there is a generally safe and vanilla one; everything to everybody. Hence why, whenever they rise, an anarchic figure like comic book anti-hero Deadpool — he of the R-rated fourth-wall-breaking film franchise — feels so uniquely revolutionary.
The marketing campaigns for both Deadpool and Deadpool 2 were unlike anything seen before. The first film, for example, brought the character’s self-aware sense of humor to life through stunts such as a billboard which advertised Deadpool as a Valentine’s Day romance. The sequel, however, which was released earlier this year, went even further: crossing over with brands such as Good Housekeeping magazine, Mexican tequila Espolòn, Trolli Candy, supermarket giant Walmart and um, Celine Dion. All of which were funny, smart, meta, consistent and most interestingly of all, either played with or explicitly used profanity — a regular feature of everyday speech, but a relative rarity in the clean-cut world of marketing.
“It’s weird,” says Doug Kessler, the creative director of B2B marketing agency Velocity, and the giver of a 2016 Inbound talk titled ‘How To Swear in Your Fucking Marketing’. “Because people hear swearing all the time, but not in ads. It makes you wonder, what is it about marketing? Partly it’s just a very convention-bound area — and a lot of them are invisible conventions. No one told us we couldn’t swear in marketing, but we all kind of knew we couldn’t, right? We just knew it, because marketing doesn’t. And it’s just one example of the inherent conservatism that constrains it. The best marketing, meanwhile, exposes those invisible conventions and plays with them a bit — bending, if not breaking, them.”
There is power within swearing. In 2009, for instance, the psychologist Richard Stephens asked 67 of his undergraduate students at Keele University in Staffordshire, England, to hold their hands in ice-cold water for as long as they could. He found that the participants who said “fuck, fuck, fuck” over and over again while doing so could withstand the pain 50% longer.
“Swearing is different to normal language because it has those emotional connections,” explains Stephens. “Another study on swearing once got students to rate a speaker who either said, 'I think course tuition fees should be abolished’, or said 'damn it, I think course tuition fees should be abolished'. And the students doing the ratings felt that the speaker demonstrated more passion and honesty when they swore. But the caveat is: it has to be on message. If it's a message you want to hear, then swearing can amplify its persuasive properties. But if it's a message you're opposed to, then swearing can discredit the speaker. It is dangerous and very context specific.”
For FCUK's sake
It’s that volatile balance between persuasiveness and offense, that dependence upon execution and the ideal combination of context, audience and brand, that makes cursing such a risk. Just take the American car company Chrysler, who, in 2011, caused a huge backlash when it tweeted: “I find it ironic that Detroit is known as the #motorcity and yet no one here knows how to fucking drive.” A jarring tone, considering their fairly inoffensive brand. Or Kessler’s personal bugbear: an energy drink called Pussy, whose ads, which were banned in Britain, used the strapline, “The drink's pure, it's your mind that's the problem.” – “It’s just so fucking juvenile,” he says.
But it is possible to pull off profanity in a way that resonates. Just take one of marketing’s most famous examples: clothing brand French Connection’s hugely successful ‘FCUK’ campaign in the ’90s — suggestive rather than blunt; playful rather than gratuitous. (“People tend to dislike gratuitous swearing,” says Stephens, “but don't mind it in an appropriate context.”) And your brand doesn’t even have to be that edgy to get it right.
“Context is super important,” says Kessler. “The speaker is super important. Sometimes it can be just so phony, like dad dancing. But you have great examples like K-Mart, who did a whole ad around ‘ship my pants’. And that’s K-Mart, a family brand, and they just had fun with it. So part of it is, are you enjoying yourself? Is there a wink, is there a smile, or are you just showing off, to swear to be something you’re not? Is it just another new artifice?”
Kessler’s favorite example is a Smart car ad from BBDO Group Germany, which goes one step further by portraying children swearing. “It’s so good! It’s kids swearing, so it’s like, 'Fuck!' And it’s all these clips. They look like they’re real YouTube clips but they may have been staged, and the kids are like, 'God damn it!', 'Fucking shit!' And someone finally turns to the kid and says, 'Who taught you to say that?' and the kid just goes, 'You.'
“And then it shows a big car trying to park in a little space, and you hear the driver go, 'For fuck’s sake!' and then a little Smart car zips right in. It says something like, ‘When you drive the wrong car, you teach the wrong words.’ It’s a wonderful ad. And there’s no way you’d pull it off without swearing.”
The risks of misfiring are well-established, but the benefits can be worth taking the chance. For starters, there’s the obvious element of surprise — a way to cut through the noise.
“At the moment consumers are over-exposed to messages, images, senses, atmospherics,” says Dr. Dimitrios Tsivrikos, consumer psychologist at University College London (UCL). “We are in an age where we bombard consumers with everything and anything to get their attention. So the rationale for brands using foul language, or slogans people would not expect, is to actually stop people in their tracks, to capture their attention. But it’s what they then do with their attention that is then important.”
If employed cleverly, and usually with knowing humor, edgy language can make a brand seem confident, persuasive, and most magically of all, authentic. “If you do it well, it definitely can signal confidence,” says Kessler. “It is a confident thing to do, to go ahead and swear and say, ‘I am me.’ It comes off as unguarded and passionate. It can resonate with like-minded people, so if you have a sweary audience, and you know you’re selling to young guys, and they’re super sweary, it signals, ‘We’re like you. We are you.’ And that can be useful.”
But of course, as Stephens explained earlier, that also means alienating everyone who doesn’t inherently agree with the message. “Up to 35 you're safe,” explains Tsivrikos. “Above 35 forget it. Millennials are slightly more edgy — they're used to it, they expect to be enticed, to be entertained. And such language is part of their everyday life. Older consumers are still brought up in way that advertising is a polite nudge rather than a wake-up call.”
“It is a risk, but it’s also an opportunity,” argues Kessler. “The best marketing is not only willing to alienate the people who are not ideal prospects, but actually goes out of its way to. Marketing should be a filter and not just a magnet, and swearing can be a very strong filter. When I did my talk I called it ‘How to Swear in Your Fucking Marketing’ because I didn’t want people in that talk who don’t like swearing – I wanted them filtered out, because they’d hate the talk and complain to the organizer. [Stage musical] The Book of Mormon did something similar. There’s a quote on the poster that says, ‘So fucking good it makes me angry’, and that is telling people who don’t like swearing, ‘You may not like The Book of Mormon.’
Different shit, different times
This combative aspect of swearing is often a hard-sell within companies themselves — with certain executives finding it difficult to accept marketing that doesn’t read like marketing. But the times are changing. Thanks, in part, to the internet allowing brands to target consumers more directly, but also in the barriers between brands and their audiences breaking down over social media, meaning that brands have to now start speaking like actual people. And actual people, more often than not, swear.
“There was a study where scientists monitored what people were saying in a soap factory in New Zealand and looked at how different workers interact with each other,” says Stephens. “And they found that members of close teams who had known each other for a long time would swear frequently to one another, yet when those same individuals interacted with other people from elsewhere in the organization, even on the same level as them in terms of ranking in the organization, the swearing would completely disappear. And a way I always frame that study is that in a bizarre way it shows swearing as a form of politeness, of a way of forming close bonds.
“But in terms of social media,” he continues, “the initial uses of swearing have to be somehow negotiated. And face-to-face, it's easier to negotiate because you get tonality and facial expressions and body language. So you could say 'fuck off' but you could be laughing and showing it's ironic. And that's a joke. But you can't easily do that in a tweet. It probably wouldn't work because you wouldn't get the nuance across.” In other words, don’t do a Chrysler.
But of course, as the great social contract of swearing relaxes further and further — ‘damn’, for instance, used to be as shocking as ‘fuck’ — and as brands begin to realize just how easy and effective risqué language can be to grab people’s attention, its power to surprise will inevitably diminish.
“As we've seen with memes and cartoons and babies, there are trends that pass,” says Tsivrikos. “So yes, swearing is one those things we will get bored of. Consumers are very savvy and incredibly aware and brands need to be reminded that if you expose them to the same thing again and again they will no longer pay attention to it… In the case of Deadpool for example, satire and swearing go hand in hand so they will be using it again and again. But the trick is that they have to keep being more and more clever for that to survive.”
Yet even if that day does come, a day when you can’t even walk down the road without being followed by a cacophony of ‘fuck’, ‘shit’ and ‘ass’, there will likely still be certain curses that will never ever be monetized — that exist outside the realms of everyday speech.
“Some words, like ‘shit’ and ‘fuck’, you don’t have to be angry to use them,” says Kessler. “But other words, [like the use of ‘cunt’ in America], they accurately signal anger, because to use that word is extreme. I wonder what’s going to happen if those angry words go away, because other than the ugly racial hate words, which no one right-minded person wants to use, what are we going to do when ‘cunt’ goes away?”
Who knows? Maybe we just won’t give a damn.
Stephen Kelly is a freelance journalist specializing in popular culture. His work has appeared in the Guardian, the Daily Telegraph, the i, Radio Times, WIRED, Total Film, Entertainment Weekly and many others.
You can follow him on Twitter.