Why You Should Swear to, Well, Swearing

Times are changing in the freedom of expression

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Early in the new year, a KFC Australia ad brought the wrong type of attention to its brand.

The ad, for its Zinger Popcorn Box, featured a fit, young woman checking herself out in the reflection of a car’s window. The window then opened to reveal two preteen boys gawking at her as she unknowingly reveals a view of her cleavage. A mom is also in the car, glaring at the woman.

For some, the ad is simple comedy brought on by a misunderstanding. For others, it’s an attempt to use sex to sell, in this case, fast food. KFC has since issued an apology for the ad. Arguably, that ad could have run in 2000 or 1970. But some newer ads feature not only sexual innuendo but obscene language. (There was no profanity in the KFC ad.)

The trend appears to have begun in the 2010s, when Taco Bell and Jolly Rancher released ads with the word “sucks,” upending advertising’s years-long taboo against using that word as a harsher synonym for “stinks.” In 2013, Kmart’s Ship My Pants made use of the pun “ship.” A few years later Kraft Macaroni & Cheese ran a Mother’s Day ad celebrating the fact that 74 percent of moms swear in front of their kids.

Other brands jumping on this trend included Jell-O, which rendered the Internet acronym FML “Fun My Life,” Kraft for “Get Your Chef Together,” and Booking.com’s “You Booking Did It.”

Clearly, the times are changing. From the 1950s on, mass-market advertising was an oasis of profanity-free communication. But some new ads include profanity while other brands hint at it, like French Connection UK’s logo.

A coarsening of our society or increased individualism?

Academics who probe the issue have found that our everyday communication has gotten coarser in recent years. A recent study by San Diego State University psychologist Jean M. Twenge indicates that the growth in the usage of such words reflects not more vulgar manners, but increased individualism and free expression.

There’s also a case that profanity has infiltrated even higher culture. A paper co-written by Twenge found books written between 2005 and 2008 were 28 times more likely to include swear words than books published in the early 1950s. Since then, as evidenced by the swearing politicians, the use of curse words has only grown.

Not everyone sees this as a bad sign. Jeff Jarvis, an author and former TV critic for TV Guide, has filed information requests with the FCC when they fine broadcasters. When asked about dropping cusswords in advertising, Jarvis pointed out a hypocrisy: “I think that people should have their own language and we need to get over our prissy puritanical ways of thinking that some of these words are shocking when there’s much more shocking things going on around us than the use of F-word.”

The evolution of offensive advertising

Ads of the 1950s are often cited for their squeaky-clean ability to both idealize life and censor any unpleasant aspects of the culture. Ironically though, while profanity-free, such ads have recently been held up for scrutiny for their subtext.

Hallmarks of ads from that era are racist and sexist messages presented within the confines of profanity-free discourse. Though some ‘80s and ‘90s ads tried to push such boundaries, we didn’t see such ads take center stage until the 21st century. That was when marketers confronted a young population weaned on social media—and broadcast TV’s dominance began crumbling.

Not everyone is a critic of such a movement. Perhaps verisimilitude is one reason why many are embracing swear words. Such words have lost much of their shock value in recent years and many find that recognition in itself funny.

Back to that KFC ad. What’s striking about the ad is that the image of two boys ogling a woman is presented as an instance of Norman Rockwell-esque ideation of a moment of naivete. It seems that what’s considered offensive and what isn’t are designations that both rely on an estimation of the viewers’ shifting sensitivities and the context in which such messages are delivered.

Currently the sacred cows in our society have possibly shifted from profanity-free speech to un-stereotypical representation for women and minorities. If that’s the case, I for one, salute it.