Affinity logo
July 18, 2023
Angela Smith

Should I swear? F*ck yeah!

I was talking with a friend the other day about how to be more authentic, personally and as a brand, when the topic of swearing came up. They mentioned that using curse words can make you seem more honest. Intrigued, I decided to investigate. 

It turns out there is some research to support the idea that people who swear tend to be seen as more truthful. If that’s the case, why don’t brands don’t do it more often? I decided to investigate…  

So, what sh*t can I say in my ads? 

As with language in general, the nature of swearing and how it’s used has changed dramatically over time. Context is vital, particularly location and culture. 

Bear in mind that when Rhett Butler uttered the immortal words “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn” in Gone with the Wind in 1939, producers were issued with a $US5,000 fine ($US110,000 in today’s money) for violating the Motion Picture Production code in allowing this ‘profanity’. 

Compare that with The Wolf of Wall Street using f*ck 569 times without a fine in sight. 

Australians tend to be recognised as a nation of potty mouths. Acceptance of swearing here is an individual judgement and is heavily biased depending on gender and ethnicity. For example, it’s much more acceptable for a white male to swear in the boardroom than a woman, or a person of colour.  

So what does that mean for how you speak as a brand? 

Well again, it depends on who you are and what response you want to get out of your audience. As you’ll see soon, it can work well, or it can be disastrous.  

For example, ad man Trevor Beattie suggested French Connection United Kingdom change their name to FCUK back in 2000. Fashion and edgy-ness at the time were synonymous with one another, and over the four years the campaign ran for, sales doubled. 

Just a year earlier, in 1999, Toyota ran their bugger ad. The word ended up getting the spots banned, but they’ve since become iconic and left a lasting impression on the industry and consumers. 

Contrast that with the now infamous Where the Bloody Hell Are You Tourism Australia campaign. Banned in one of its primary markets (the UK), the $184m campaign cost Scott Morrison his Tourism Australia job. (It’s okay, he probably had five other jobs to fall back on.) Lara Bingle, now Worthington, ended up Tweeting during the 2019 bushfire disaster “Where the bloody hell are you” while Scott Morrison was on holiday in Hawaii.  

Is swearing fertile f*cking ground for distinctiveness? 

Swearing can push the emotion in your advertising. And according to Byron Sharp, that distinctiveness can lead to greater mental availability. So if the conditions are right, f*cking go for it.  

The essential consideration is how authentic is swearing for your brand?  

Despite there being little, if any social-science data, to support that a word in itself is harmful, once again context is key. 

Therefore, instead of thinking of swearing as uniformly harmful or morally wrong, look for more meaningful information about whether your brand should swear. Ask what communication goals it achieves. Swearwords can give you several different outcomes, as when used positively for joking or storytelling, stress management, fitting in with the crowd, or as a substitute for physical aggression.

Recent work by Stephens et al. even shows that swearing is associated with enhanced pain tolerance. This finding suggests swearing has a cathartic effect, which many of us may have personally experienced in frustration or in response to pain.

Despite this empirical evidence, the positive consequences of swearing are commonly disregarded in the media. Here is an opportunity for psychological scientists to help inform the media and policymakers by clearly describing the range of outcomes of swearing, including the benefits

Regardless of where you fall on how moral or necessary swearing is, there may be a scientific basis to using these kinds of harsh words. Research has indeed shown that swearing can benefit the speaker, helping to alleviate physical and psychological pain. A 2020 study in the UK showed that swearing while enduring a painful experience increased participants’ pain threshold and pain tolerance by a third. Other studies have shown swearing can help alleviate emotional pain, too, so slipping a few choice words into a rant can make it much more cathartic. 

So, Jay argues that swearing has value. If it didn’t, he says, it wouldn’t exist. “We’re the only animal that’s evolved to do this,” says Jay. “If it wasn’t useful, it’d become obsolete.” 

What saying f*ck says about us 

Contempt-conveyance and pain relief aren’t the only functions of swearing. Jay says using explicit words is good for humour, self-denigration, storytelling and coping, too. 

But of these additional functions, perhaps the most practical, useful one is fitting in socially. For instance, if you’re working with a group that casually peppers their speech with expletives, using some yourself can help put you on an equal playing field. “I tell my students, especially in my intro classes, ‘Look, I’m going to say some swear words in here. How do you react to that?’” says Jay. “They say, ‘It makes you seem more like us.’ It creates a connection, rather than keeping them at arm’s length.” 
Knowing and using the slang of a specific group can help you build a rapport, and that slang often includes ‘off-colour’ language. People who swear often are said to be “talking like a sailor”, but Jay says every community has their own set of taboo words, “whether they’re waitresses or rugby players”. Using common language – swear words and all – can help someone slide more seamlessly into a social community. 

Swearing can also provide a clue into your character – although maybe not in the way that you instinctively think. Perhaps bucking popular belief, research suggests swearing can make you seem more trustworthy or intelligent. One multi-national study showed that people who use profanity are considered to be less deceptive and to have more integrity

And contrary to your grade-six teacher’s assurances that cursing indicates a poor vocabulary, Jay’s research says the opposite is true. “People who have a lot of different words for different things are also good at generating swear words,” he says. “People that are good at language are usually intelligent; swearing is a demonstration of novelty, flexibility and creativity.”

We’re not all swearing by the same rules, and sadly it’s not bull sh*t 

These upsides of being occasionally inappropriate aren’t necessarily available to everyone. Swearing, whatever its potential benefits, is still a breach of the code of politeness, and some people can break those rules more readily than others.

When men, especially those in positions of power, use profane language, it can be excused or written off as “locker room talk”, or viewed with an attitude of “boys will be boys”. Women operate under a separate standard. Research shows swearing can be more offensive depending on the identity of the swearer. One study showed that when a woman and a man used the same dirty word, the woman was considered six times more obscene

Ultimately, it’s a question of power, says Jay. The executives who have historically made the rules – most of them white men – are the same people who can break them with little consequence. For everyone else, the stakes are higher. 

And perhaps that’s been the recurring theme of this article. Should you swear at work or in your ads? It depends. It’s less of a taboo now than ever, which is f*cking fantastic. But as you’ve probably noted throughout this article, we’ve been softening the blow with an asterisk. 

A tasteful un-expleted sh*t here or there once or twice in an article wouldn’t be too much for us. But to rip them out at the frequency we did here, without the asterisk, would have been. Because swearwords are hefty, they have weight. We’ve chosen the level our brand can carry. For yours, it might be pretty f*cking different. 


Better input always leads to greater outcomes

Subscribe to OutThink, the AFFINITY ThoughtReport

Contact us

Get in touch and find out what we can do for you.
Business hours: 9–5.30pm, Monday–Friday
Call Luke on:
+61 2 8354 4400

"*" indicates required fields

This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

Our associations, partnerships and platforms

ADMA logo
Google Partner
Financial Review Best Places to Work logo
Tealium logoSnowflake Partner Network logo