A few weeks ago, an interesting conversation broke out on Inbound.org about swearing in email marketing. As you might imagine, marketers of various stripes had strong feelings about what you can and can't say online.
In that vein, I thought I’d weigh in... not by directly answering the question so much as offering a set of dos and don'ts to consider next time you feel the urge to drop an F-bomb or two.
…be true to your brand.
Who are you? How do you talk in public? What words do you use with your clients and customers when actually speaking to them? While there's something to be said for saving your most colorful language for private communication, be wary of creating too large a gap between the public and private you.
…favor creativity over lazy vulgarity.
It's easy to get everyone's attention by saying something off-color or provocative. But while a roaring F-bomb might give you a fleeting moment of attention, a cleverly crafted bit of writing will likely engage your readers and/or listeners longer.
Consider K-Mart's delightfully witty and only marginally offensive "Ship My Pants” commercial. This viral video attracted some much-needed attention to the beleaguered retail brand precisely because they were able to swear without actually swearing.
…know your audience.
The word communicate comes from Latin parentage, roughly meaning to ‘make common’ your thoughts and ideas with others. So if your job hinges on your ability to communicate with others, you have to care more about the way others receive your words than the way they are delivered.
That said, ‘it feels right’ is never a good enough answer to the cussing question. You need to know how your words will sound, who they’ll offend, who they’ll ingratiate and just how much of that trade-off you’re willing to accept.
…understand your context.
In addition to knowing the individuals who make up your audience, you need to consider your own industry context. If you’re marketing craft beer to hip, young millennials, then feel free to cuss like a dirty old sailor. If on the other hand, your task is to sling organic diapers, perhaps it's best to chew on a bar of soap first.
Moreover, keep in mind whether you’re operating in a B2B or B2C sector. You might often find colorful language deployed to full effect in the latter, but you rarely see a B2B influencer dropping F-bombs on Forbes or Inc.
…be a parrot.
‘Everybody's doing it’ is never a good enough reason to pick up on the latest fad. If you’re seriously thinking about adding some color to your copy and content, think hard about how it’ll play in your community—not how it’s worked in others.
…use cuss words to make up for lack of creativity/vocabulary.
It’s often quipped that cuss words serve as the weapon of choice for unhappy dolts who slog through life with a diminutive array of lexical alternatives. While there may be some truth to that, this condescending bit of conventional wisdom undervalues the impact of a well-placed cuss word on the lips of a savvy orator.
Nevertheless, there are plenty of marketers who use profanity as a crutch. Rather than write a piece of copy worthy of a reader’s attention, they choose instead to steal it by way of a vulgar little eye/ear-grabber. Don’t be that marketer.
I was in a church service once, when in the middle of his sermon, the pastor let this doozy drop:
“I’m an overachiever, man. I get sh¡t done.”
For our youngish, middle-class crowd of well-behaved Presbyterians, that cuss word was like a breath of fresh, authentic air blowing right through the auditorium. It made perfect sense in context, illustrated his point and most importantly, reminded us that our pastor was a human being and not some holier-than-thou robot.
Too many marketers, celebrities, speakers and politicians have co-opted vulgarity as a smarmy way of using colorful language to make them seem more real and authentic than they truly are.
It rarely works.
Moral of the story? Don’t use words to pretend to be someone you’re not.
What do you think; to cuss or not to cuss? That’s the question.