Marketing, August 29, 2002
There’s a certain word that everybody knows and almost everybody uses. Very few people use it all the time, and almost nobody uses it everywhere. You probably wouldn’t use the word, for instance, talking to your parents, authority figures, prospective employers or spiritual advisors.
But if you write commercials, you can apparently imply it in such an unmistakable way that you might as well use it.
The word’s been part of the English language since the 16th century. It’s called an Anglo-Saxonism, although it probably came from the Germanic or possibly Scandinavian “frichen,” meaning to strike, beat or bang. You were probably in grade school when you heard it first. You knew it was a bad word, although you probably didn’t know why because you didn’t know what it meant. You’re more likely to use its gerund/adjectival form with the “ing” ending as an intensifier. It’s seldom used literally; the rusty lug nuts on the flat tire you’re changing aren’t actually replicating their DNA. But in some contexts, there is no other word to use.
But would you imply it in a commercial? And if implying it is okay, isn’t it just a matter of time until some desperate agency, itchy for “edge,” will use it?
Taboos dissolve; standards shift. In 1962, stand-up comic Lenny Bruce is charged with obscenity and tried because of the language in his act. In 1972, George Carlin’s Class Clown LP features “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television,” goes gold and wins a Grammy using the same language.
And then one evening you’re watching TV. An ad for the Sony PlayStation 2 driving game Stuntman comes on, and the voiceover says, “While all those pretty little actors are sitting in their trailers being pampered and fawned over, the Hollywood stuntmen are out havin’ all the f****n’ fun.” The middle of that word — its first vowel, the ‘k’ sound in the middle and its second vowel — is silent in the ad. At least it was in the version I saw. But the brain fills it in just fine, thanks, just as the writers at TBWA\Chiat\Day San Francisco knew it would.
Later that evening, CTV runs a promo for The Osbournes this fall. Ozzy and brood use that particular word a lot. CTV’s Osbournes sponsor is Labatt Blue, so the billboard read by the announcer for the promo is “A whole lot can happen out of the f****n’ blue.” Again, there’s silence between the initial “f” and final “n,” but it’s obvious what they mean.
CTV is airing The Sopranos, probably the best series on television, and its originating network, HBO, also produces Sex and the City. The Anglo-Saxon vulgarism for sexual intercourse and its variants are used liberally on both shows. But on The Sopranos, the language lends verisimilitude. You expect Mafiosi to talk that way. FBI surveillance tapes prove that real-life, recently deceased Mafia boss John Gotti did. You’d expect a show called Sex and the City to feature explicit language. If it didn’t, it’d be Love, American Style. But just because I’m fascinated by Tony Soprano or find Sex and the City hilarious does not mean I want commercial pitch-people talking like Tony Soprano or Samantha Jones, no matter what they’re selling.
Why use the word in a commercial? Does research prove a crucial corollary between prospective video game and/or beer purchasers and people for whom the use of the vulgarity in question is the most persuasive clincher? “You know, I really could have gone either way on Stuntman, but since they use the f-word in their commercials, well, those c**ks****rs can consider me f****n’ sold. Hey, pass me another f****n’ Blue, wouldja, f***face?” And if that’s the case, why aren’t we hearing it four times in every Canadian Tire commercial? Home repair, auto mechanics and carpentry are all realms where that word gets used a lot.
The uncensored version of the Stuntman commercial is worse; it’s gutless and dishonest, albeit marginally more polite. Instead of silence, you get to hear the homonymic approximation “frickin’.” Or maybe it’s “friggin’.” If you’re going to use that word, then use it. They’re not implying the expunged word is “fun-lovin’,” “falafelin’,” “flyin’” or “fruitful.” And while the four-letter Anglo-Saxon expletive and its variants are in my dictionary, “fricking,” “fricken,” “frigging” and “friggin’” are not.
Protection of free speech has a couple of limits: the freedom/responsibility balance is one. Different kinds of speech merit different degrees of protection, and commercial speech warrants less. And, though speech should be unrestricted in a democracy, nobody has the right to yell “movie” in a crowded firehouse, or to use a vulgar term for sexual intercourse to sell me video games or beer.
Advertising is supposed to succeed or fail on its creativity. And as your mom or your third-grade teacher should have told you, the frequency of that particular seven-letter Anglo-Saxon expletive is usually in inverse proportion to a speaker’s vocabulary, intelligence and/or rhetorical creativity.
Any way you slice it, using that word in advertising copy just seems really f*****g stupid.