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Is the Effect of Language on Brands Sacred or Profane?

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For anyone who ever studied Latin, there are certain nuances. In referring to unclothed deities, you use the Latin word for “naked.” For mortals, it’s “nude.” And the mnemonic device to remember is “naked is sacred, but nude is lewd.” The difference doesn’t mean much nowadays – not even in America where any form of undress that’s viewable by the general public can still be considered immoral.

So why is it that, in the pursuit of specific demographics, brands now readily resort to expletives that were once considered wholly unacceptable? Sometimes they’re disguised as initials, sometimes they’re blurted out – repeatedly – by CEOs, and sometimes they’re bleeped...intentionally. Yet they all reflect directly on the brands they’re connected to, and that should concern every corporate executive who has to deal with damage control.

brand_censorship_marketingThat Was Then

Of course, times change. Language morphs. Morals shift. For generations, English wasn’t spoken in the English royal court (French maintained its hold after the Normans took over). When Anglo-Saxonisms made their way into discourse, they were scorned or banned or both. Ask James Joyce or D. H. Lawrence about the problems with Ulysses and Lady Chatterley’s Lover. When Clark Gable intoned, “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn,” it made headlines...back in 1939.

Now, despite what Cole Porter felt five years earlier, anything goes. There’s marketing content that explains new technology under the title “WTF is...?” and commercials aimed at millennials whose on-camera spokesmen say things like “They’re f(bleep)ing great” (that’s their bleep, not mine). By contrast, with movies and cable TV, it’s all as tame as the dialogue in 1950s sitcoms, but it still makes a mark.

No Brand Is an Island

For a 20-something techie or consumer, the use of the average four-letter word is probably considered so natural that they don’t even notice. For partners, resellers, and investors, however, there could be a reluctance (or refusal) to accept the approach if it might have a negative effect.

At conferences, it’s not uncommon to hear presenters and panel participants describe things using purely scatological and sexual terms. And for everyone who smiles in agreement, there’s someone wincing in the seat right beside them. It may still be true that there’s a time and a place for everything, but figuring out what it is isn’t easy.

EFFECT-IVE

I’d posit that profanity, when not used for a very specific effect in an equally specific situation, risks degrading a brand’s reputation – even in the instant-response environment of modern online marketing. That’s because obscenity is easy. It’s lazy. It’s completely the opposite of the time, effort, and thought that goes into branded products and services.

In a world of infinite possibilities, brands select the ones that they believe will make their wares stand out...in the most positive ways. So it’s hard to believe that, in a language like English with roughly one million words (counting all the variants and borrowings) – about three times more than any Romance language – it’s impossible to find a more distinctive way of describing what makes a brand’s products unique than “they’re f(bleep)ing great.”

About the author

Peter Altschuler's picture

BlueSteps Executive Guest Writer

Peter Altschuler has been making products and services irresistible for more than a generation in a career that extends from high technology to television production.

He’s currently the chief marketing and creative strategist at Wordsworth & Company and has served as a Group Creative Director at San Francisco ad agency Anderson & Lembke, run the in-house agency at Candle Corp (now part of IBM) and, earlier, worked in television, producing for ABC News, Sesame Workshop, The Food Network, and PBS.
   
In his spare time, he brings books to life — most recently narrating Getting Religion by former Newsweek religion editor Kenneth Woodward and Creativity, Inc. by Pixar founder Ed Catmull — and performs in everything from Shakespeare to commercials.

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