Swearing in advertising

At the end of my Copyblogger post a week or two ago, I used the Copyhackers tagline in my byline:

Where startups & marketers learn to convert like mofos.

The very first comment on that post was from a well-known copywriter named Bob Bly. Here’s what he had to say:

Bob Bly comment on Joanna Wiebe Copy Hackers Copyblogger post

Once I stopped smiling at having been lumped in with “young people”, and once I confirmed with my mom that I am indeed cool, it occurred to me that some people are legitimately offended by euphemisms and ‘impolite’ colloquialisms.

I mean, my mother-effing post was over 3000 words long, and it cited more than 10 studies. It’s kinda epic. But the best Bob could say about it – and I encourage you to check out the comments ‘cos, even after sleeping on it, he’s still mad as hell – was that my impolite language had offended him.

Which begged the question…

Do We Have to Write to Please Everyone?

The insta-answer to that question, for this copywriter, was and is HELLZ NO!

I always recommend that you write for the 20 to 35% of your visitors that are most likely to a) convert and b) be happier for it. I recommend that because I’ve tested it and it works. It’s not just an assumption I randomly pulled out of the air and tried once; it’s not like I applied a go-narrow principle to my business and my business alone and found that it prettymuch worked, so now I think everyone should do the same for similar results.

You should write for a slice of your visitor pie because it works better than writing for the whole pie. It’s helped me sell a shit-ton of software… to say nothing of courses, and, yes, ebooks.

Effective conversion copy doesn’t ‘please’ every visitor to your site. 

(BTW, your audience is not everyone. So why would you try to please everyone?)

My clients and readers see great wins by focusing on The 20 to 35%For example, this summer I got a 16% lift on the Crazy Egg home page. That may not sound like much, but bear in mind that the Crazy Egg home page had been tested like a… well, like a mofo. And it’d been tested by some of the most trustworthy names in conversion rate optimization – including the team at Conversion Rate Experts. (Remember this?) We weren’t sure we’d be able to beat their incredible control – but we did!

One of the biggest changes we made was this: we stopped speaking to a broad range of unnamed businesses and startups – and we instead focused every message on marketers, designers and agencies. Here’s a message we put big ‘n’ bold above the fold:

Narrow your message

Is that a message that speaks to everyone?

Nope. Intentionally not.

But if you’re a digital marketer, a UX designer, a UI designer, a web manager, a web analyst or someone else from an agency or consultancy, it speaks 100% to you. And it should come as little surprise that we selected those 4 bullets based on research. I’ll be writing more about this super-interesting test soon. But for now, here’s the thing…

Every Startup, Copywriter & Content Marketer Has to Decide: Who Will I Pander To?

When hosting the Golden Globes, Ricky Gervais famously offended almost all of Hollywood. He explained his reasoning for telling jokes that aggravated many a celebrity and made the rest of us laugh our butts off:

“Do I pander to the 200 egos in the room,
or the 200 million people watching at home?”
– Ricky Gervais

His audience wasn’t in the room, much to the actors’ surprise. His audience was at home, watching overpaid celebrities celebrate their awesomeness.

Now, among the 200 million watching from home, a lot of people were pissed off. (Others – like yours truly – were finally entertained by what could’ve been another lame awards show.) But this is the important note: those offended people weren’t Gervais’s audience; they may have been the Golden Globes’s audience, but they were not his.

Which leads me to a question for you:

Should he have adapted his style of jokes to suit the forum…

Should I have adapted my language to suit the Copyblogger forum…

…Even if only a small percentage of said forum might be offended?

The Research Behind Swearing: It Bonds Us

Books have been written on the subject of profanity. Studies have been done. Academics have narrowed types of curses into categories, like Trudgill and Anderson (1990) did here:

Expletive: Expresses one’s emotions

Abusive: Meant to harm the recipient / listeners

Humorous: Like abusive swearing but with no harm intended

Auxiliary: A way of speaking

Ljung (1986) found that swearing suggests such qualities as independence and naturalness, which create a sense of covert prestige. And studies aligning swearing and laughter – both of which are involved in shaping or not shaping relationships – have found this: swearing can promote group solidarity, strengthen group bonds and exclude non-members / better include members.

Swearing, like laughter, causes a reaction in people. People like to react; we like to feel. Popular commercials that border on swearing tap into these feelings, like this one does:

So if swearing can bond us… And if it can generate feelings similar to those created by laughter… Should we still avoid it in our marketing lest we offend 1 in 100?

If Your Audience Is Cool with Swearing,
Should You Do It?

To be clear, the word “mofo” – which comes from “motherf***er” – doesn’t qualify as a swearword to this Canadian gal.

Maybe it does to others.

But it doesn’t to me. No, I don’t want to hear my nieces and nephews use it – but I’m not writing a blog for kids under 12. I’m writing a blog for startups, and I know thanks to surveys and cool MailChimp plugins that my audience is comprised largely of:

25 to 50 year-old men

30 to 45 year-old women

No kids in the mix. And remarkably few Baby Boomers.

Most of my readers are solopreneurs, bootstrapped startups, marketers or members of a web team at an agency, rapidly growing startup or Fortune 500. These are the people who buy my ebooks and take my courses; these are the people who comment on this very blog. These are the members of my audience. I write for them – I write for you.

I write phrases that I hope will stick with you. And I write them using the sort of style and tone that is not only true to me but also true to you. To see what I mean, do a quick content analysis of this email from a reader named Billy:

I don’t know what platform you are using to host the course, but Moodle is what I use to teach my courses and to build courses for my clients. It’s FUCKING awesome. Mostly, because it’s free, open source, and over 70,000 schools use it, it’s kind of a low key rising star. In summary it’s tight because it allows full on tracking of your student’s and the entire learning process is automated. Drag, Drop, Shazam you’re done.

N e wayz just like CRO is a science, so is making videos to sell sh*t….. here’s my magical hot sauce: Enjoy.

In addition to using the F word in ALL CAPS SHOUTING, Billy uses words like “tight” and “shazam”. This is not polite language. And I’m as cool with it as Billy is. Do I exactly match the sort of language Billy uses when I’m writing copy and content for Copyhackers? Hellz no! It’s about finding the balance: what’s right for the 20 to 35%… and what’s right for you, the voice behind the copy.

Let an F-Bomb Drop If It If It Will Improve the Message for Your Audience

Among your top priorities when writing copy and laying it out on a page is getting eyeballs on that message.

From there, it’s about creating a message that resonates with YOUR audience now and will be remembered later.

As much as I may be risking turning people off with a tagline that uses the word “mofo”, that’s a risk I’m willing to take to create a sticky, memorable message. After all, who doesn’t want people to tweet about their tagline?

You Don’t Need to Use the F Word, Though

Swearing in copywritingThe F word is a favorite among many. There are 100s of words – new ones being made up all the time – that might offend the Baby Boomer generation but work really nicely in your copy for your non-Boomer audience.

(And, BTW, I don’t think everyone over 55 has a stick up their butt about swearing and euphemisms. Not at all! Making assumptions based on ages is pretty uncool; I’m only mentioning it because it was the core of the argument against my use of “mofo”.)

I don’t like to write the F-word or sh** (except once above – tee hee) because they’re a little harsh for me to see on the page. But there are a variety of euphemisms that could easily color your copy without crossing any real lines:










Scheiße (said colloquially as “shy-za”)

Yes, I just made a list of tolerable bad words. That really just happened.

Each one of those words might work in your office. They might work among your friends. But, without question, you are taking a risk when you use that kind of language. So, for starters, test to be sure. And remember that you’re running your business… and edits can always be made. It’s your copy. It’s your voice. Be as scrappy and out-standing as you’d like to be.

With regard to risk, you’re also taking a risk when you absolutely avoid euphemisms and impolite words in your copy. What risk is that? Simply the risk that you’ll wind up saying nothing remotely memorable whatsoever. And you’d better have one helluva product if you’re cool with people forgetting your message.


More about swearing in this awesome Salon article