Dare to Swear: In Financial Marketing, Where Is The @#$% Line?

Can a carefully-calculated bleeped out curse word actually be a shrewd way to generate buzz and accelerate consumer awareness while positioning a brand as edgy, honest and disruptive? Marketing experts weigh in with the pros and cons.

Is swearing — whether just implied or stated overtly — still taboo in marketing?

Most people have a knee-jerk reaction: “No way, it isn’t okay! Never!”

Not so fast. The debate is actually more nuanced.

These days, nearly every kids’ show on TV includes “What the…?” as an exclamation. So why couldn’t a marketer use “What the…?” in their campaign? And what about terms like “heck” or “frickin’?” Acronyms like OMG or WTF? Or that series of @#$% typographical symbols intended to suggest profanity (called a “grawlix” in linguistic circles).

Consider this example. You’re watching TV when a commercial from a bank comes on. A little girl is playing with her stuffed doll while her parents entertain dinner guests.

“Hi, I was just calling about my home loan application,” says the little girl to her doll. She’s role-playing, acting like a grown-up while pretending her doll is a representative from the bank.

All the adults look on with admiration. It’s cute. She seems so mature. They all share a chuckle. But it quickly turns dark, as she begins to reenact a conversation she clearly overheard one of her parents having with the bank.

“What!?!? You are the FIFTH [bleep] person I’ve spoken to this week.”

There’s no audible f-bomb in the spot, but it’s definitely implied.

The dinner party gets quiet as the laughter evaporates. The youngster is mimicking her parents’ struggles to get help with a mortgage over the phone… including the four-letter word they most likely used.

“Why do I have to go through this every single time?” the little girl scolds her doll. “It’s exhausting!!!”

This isn’t a hypothetical illustration. It is a real commercial that an actual bank aired on TV.

At the end of the spot, the announcer cuts in: “With UBank’s UHomeLoan checker, you can check your application anytime.” UBank promises to “take the pain out of the process” by letting mortgage customers check the status of their loan app digitally.

In UBank’s commercial for mortgages, a little girl reenacts her parent’s frustrations with the process — including the sailor talk.

The little girl’s reenactment is spot on. We’ve all been there — so irritated with some service agent that we wanted to hurl an obscenity over the phone. That’s what makes the commercial funny. In fact, the truer something is, the funnier it is.

The scene depicts the reality many consumers experience, and shows them how to address a common problem. Typically those are two ingredients of great advertising. But did the bank go too far? Was the bleeped out curse word an effective way to capture people’s attention? Or was it a shameful and inappropriate marketing gimmick?

What financial marketer hasn’t wondered how far they could push the envelope to stand out from all the other me-too bank and credit unions ads? Cutting through the clutter with a memorable ad message is a big part of what they’re paid to do. And typically, there is nothing more boring than bank advertising.

But does swearing — even when it’s just implied — cross a line?

In 2013, K-mart had a TV spot with potty-humor. Their “Ship My Pants,” commercial got huge traffic online before being launched on cable. Industry analysts over at Ad Age labelled the commercial “sophomoric,” but it won a bunch of awards and was considered a big success anyway.

OMG, Are We Really Having This Conversation?

To many people, swearing is a moral issue. Financial marketers who feel that way about swearing are unlikely to try it or recommend it. For those who don’t feel it’s a moral issue, however, using swearing becomes a question of appropriateness and effectiveness. When a fashion retailer can put their FCUK name in big six foot letters on their sign in the mall, trying to figure out where the line is in financial marketing can be tricky.

“The discussion is really about the power of words, the boundaries of brand and the odd implications of taboo,” says Doug Kessler, Creative Director at marketing shop Velocity Partners.

Kessler is right, of course. Language is subjective and fluid. What’s acceptable to one person might not be to another. And what was once unacceptable in years past is now normal. After all, “gadzooks” was once considered offensive, but is now something in Ned Flanders‘ vocabulary.

Swear words pack a punch. They are powerful and evocative. And since marketers are charged with exploiting human emotions to build brands, why shouldn’t they use all the linguistic and communications tools available?

Financial marketers, however, will say that they work in a very different world than that of consumer products, retailing, entertainment, and food — that they are held to a different standard, a higher set of expectations. But do they?

In 2013, One Nevada Credit Union ran a gutsy campaign that unabashedly touted their “BACON” checking account, an acronym for “Bad Ass Checking from One Nevada.” In print, the words appeared as “Bad A$$” and in a TV spot spoofing a 1950s household, “ass” was bleeped.

That same year, Capital One ran a commercial featuring Samuel L. Jackson who promised credit card rewards “every damn day.” The ad triggered angry complaints from people threatening to close their accounts or stop using their cards. Capital One quickly replaced the ad with a tamer version, with Jackson’s controversial line changed to “every single day.”

Aussie Bank’s @#$% Ad Was ‘Relatable’

UBank, a division of NAB in Australia, has been running offbeat TV ads for several years. Their brand is brash, and their marketing reflects a level of courage not often seen in financial marketing circles. So the TV spot with the cursing schoolgirl is not a huge stretch for them.

“As a disruptor, we take a bold approach in our marketing. But it’s always done to provoke a conversation, not just for the sake of being bold.”
— Jo Kelly, CMO at UBank

UBank CMO Jo Kelly says the objective of the “Cussing Kid” campaign was to highlight the hassles of the home-loan process. Kelly, whose bio on the UBank website describes her as “a disruptive, customer-focused leader,” wanted an ad that effectively communicated how the bank’s online tracker allowed customers to follow the real-time progress of their application without having to call.

“The campaign shows a family-friendly dinner gone rogue when one couple’s daughter re-enacts the inconvenient truth and emotional discomfort many people experience when trying to keep track of the progress of their home-loan application,” explains Kelly. What’s wrong with that?

That sounds great… in theory. But how would Kelly’s CEO feel about the spot, much less the target audience?

According to Kelly, the ad was actually not a tough sell to management. And it was approved by regulators in Australia, where cultural norms are a little more crass than other countries.

Kelly also says the response from the public and the media has been positive.

“The ad is relatable,” she observes. “People see it for what it is — the humor when kids mimic their parents.” Kelly points out that there wasn’t any actual swearing that took place during the filming. “People assume the ‘bleep’ is a swear word. It may not be.”

Marketing psychologist Dr. Max Sutherland described this approach as “implicit swearing,” a technique for marketers who want to be “clever rather than crude.” People realize that any vulgarity emerges from their own minds almost as much as from the ad itself, he explains, adding that offense is likely to be cushioned when an ad relies on such “self completion”’ by the consumer.

Some marketing advisors think using bleeps or other stand-ins for profanity is lame. If you’re going to do it, just go for it, they say.

“We thought long and hard about whether to bleep or not,” says Greg Barnes about One Nevada’s BACON campaign. “We decided the bleep would be impactful, and it was.”

Even with the bleep, some television stations would not air the ads. “We just doubled up ads on all the others,” says Barnes.

Bleeped or not, using profanity in financial institution ads takes guts. Barnes confesses One Nevada’s Bad A$$ checking campaign was the only time in his career when he got nervous about an ad and started thinking about pulling it.

“We understood the risks and took a chance,” he recalls.

Despite his misgivings the board and CEO decided to stick it out. The BACON campaign was set to run six weeks, but they let it run longer because of all the non-member engagement and reaction — positive and negative. Even in the tough, adult-themed, desert metropolis, plenty of people weren’t happy with One Nevada over that ad.

“These days everyone is offended all the time.”
— Greg Barnes, Broadway Bank

“Honestly, we didn’t really prepare too much for negative feedback but addressed it as it came in,” Barnes relates. “We created scripts based on the incoming calls and standardized social responses. We had to block some hardcore complainers on social when they got out of control.”

“These days,” Barnes continues, “everyone is offended all the time. To do the same campaign now, I would expect a higher offense rate and some insolent hashtag like #boycottbacon.”

The BACON ads did not immediately increase checking accounts, but Barnes says that the credit union’s name and brand recognition shot way up.

“The promotion set us up for a great next couple of years of solid growth in checking accounts and cross-sells.”

Would Barnes do it again? “Absolutely,” he says.

Five Reasons to Consider Swearing in Ads

Overall, bank and credit union marketing is pretty conservative. But even financial marketers recognize the need to stand out from the pack. After all, if people swear about their bank — sometimes even directly at their bank — why not acknowledge that truth in ads?

If you’re catering to a certain demographic (e.g. snarky 20-somethings), swearing might definitely work to your advantage, notes Neil Patel, author and marketing advisor. Patel, Doug Kessler and several other marketing pros outline a number of reasons to consider swearing in advertising. Here are five that banks and credit unions should consider.

“A brilliantly timed f-bomb can be hilarious because often it verbalizes what many of us are thinking.”
— Lucy Coffey, Elmwood

1. It’s funny. “Precisely because these words are transitioning out of taboo, they can punch up a punchline,” explains Kessler. Adds Lucy Coffey, Head of Verbal Identity for U.K. brand consultancy Elmwood: “A brilliantly timed f-bomb can be hilarious because often it verbalizes what many of us are thinking, breaks the ice and takes us by surprise. There’s no doubt that being a little risqué can work extremely well if there’s some genuine strategic thinking behind it or if it strikes the right balance of humor and shock.”

2. It signals authenticity. “We are all increasingly suspicious of shiny one-dimensional branding without depth or flaw,” writes David Boyle in The Guardian. “We increasingly want unspun, unmediated experiences, with something human at the heart.” Says Patel: “It’s refreshing to see a brand that lets loose a little.”

“It’s refreshing to see a brand that lets loose a little.”
— Neil Patel, Marketing Expert

3. It has emotional impact. “Swearing and obscenity are appealing and taboo at the same time. They evoke an emotional reaction — negative, positive or both,” says Andrew Wolfe of GTB. “Swearing might cause offense to some,” Coffey states, “but there’s no denying it provokes a strong reaction. Your attention is well and truly grabbed.” Even so, she adds, “It’s a very fine line between being crass and being clever.”

4. It conveys confidence. “Swearing is a ballsy marketing move,” says Patel. “It’s not for the timid. It shows you’re not afraid to be a little rebellious and break conventional marketing rules.” In a comment about a blog on the use of swearing in ads, marketing speaker and author Ann Handley writes, “I like it when companies take risks in marketing. As long as it’s not gratuitously swearing, I’m cool with it.”

5. It has the power of surprise. “Swear words are surprising in a marketing context and surprising audiences is one of our most important and toughest challenges,” says Kessler. “When people are marketed to, they put up that invisible, anti-spin force-field to resist the charms of the wicked hype-meisters. When marketing surprises — the force-field comes down.” Even so, Kessler does say, “Of course, swearing is not the only way to surprise.”

Megan Krause, Content Manager at digital marketing firm Vertical Measures, thinks using a grawlix — or “symbol swearing” (#@!), as she calls it — is a more palatable middle ground between outright cussing and not using profanity at all. “I think symbol swearing signifies that you’re aware of others’ sensitivities and willing to meet them halfway.”

Reasons to Skip Swearing

As the erstwhile marketing director of Colorado-based Ent Credit Union, Andrea Doray says that any brand emphasizing personal connections — as most banks and credit unions do — probably should not use profanity in their marketing. However, Doray, now head of strategy at a marketing firm, differentiates use of profanity in personal conversation from use in mainstream media where everyone sees it.

“You can moderate profanity in personal conversation. In mainstream media everyone sees it.”
— Andrea Doray, Marketing Consultant

Barnes, who pushed the envelope back in his days at One Nevada, has his own limits. He agrees that “straight-up profanity” would diminish a financial brand.

Doray understands why companies use profanity for shock value, but says that most financial institutions are striving to build lifetime value and relationships. “I can’t think of a financial brand that would benefit long-term from using profanity in ads.”

That’s where community banker Natalie Bartholomew comes down, as well.

“I am all for taking risks,” says the CMO of Oklahoma-based Grand Savings Bank, and creator of “The Girl Banker” blog, “I just don’t see that it would benefit a community bank when there are plenty of other, less offensive routes we could go with our marketing.” She did add, however, that if a bank’s target market is less likely to be offended, “then go for it!”

Many of the non-bank marketing pros who gave the reasons to consider swearing also offered reasons not to. For marketing experts, the decision to swear (or not) is a branding issue. They are quick to point out that swearing for most marketers would definitely be off-brand.

“You do pay a penalty every time you use a swear word in your marketing,” says Doug Kessler. “The only question is how big that penalty is.”

“To some people, swearing is what crass, uneducated people do,” says Kessler. “To many others it’s not, so you need to think about your audience: Are they likely to like or respect you less if you swear?”

“There aren’t many brands that can comfortably swear without breaking a brand value or two,” Kessler points out.

According to Barnes, it must be in the financial institution’s DNA to pull off something like his One Nevada BACON campaign. “You can’t just be an old stodgy institution and all a sudden think your brand can support something super creative,” he says.

Neil Patel comments that swearing — when used inappropriately — can “offend consumers, diminish your brand equity, and make you look like an insensitive bigot.”

According to Ann Handley, who is widely respected as one of the most powerful voices in marketing, all too often, swearing in advertising is gratuitous. Several people that The Financial Brand spoke with for the article made this point.

“Most companies should not curse in their marketing,” Handley says. “Most of the time, it’s meant to provoke in a cheap, forced way. It tends to come across as bridge-burningly aggressive.”

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