Show 15 – Dirty Words

In this episode, we dissect the effect profanity and cursing has on people…

  • Why some people develop a puritanical zealotry over words they deem offensive, while others simply hear a combination of sounds
  • Why you should teach your children to curse properly at a young age
  • Why it’s a modern marketers duty to know when colloquial slang translates offensively across borders

George Carlin on profanity:

  • “Lenny was the first one to make language an issue and suffer for it… I was the first one to make language an issue an succeed with it.”
  • “Shock is nothing more than a heightened element of surprise”

John’s 3 steps to determining when to inject harsh language into your copy…

  • Step 1: No embellishment
  • Step 2: mild embellishment
  • Step 3: NSFW language

John’s Quotes of Note from this Show:

  • “You can’t be so eloquent that you call attention to what you’re doing.”
  • “If the word fits use it… words that throw themselves on the barbed wire of the language wars”
  • “Write like you speak… if you could edit what you say.”

30 thoughts on “Show 15 – Dirty Words

  1. Jiyaad Naeem

    Coming from corporate consulting, I went from weasel-wording, and beating around the bush so I didn’t have to take responsibility or take a stance on a topic – to now totally hating seeing that kind of language.

    I almost went to the other extreme where I started using slang and writing colloquially/ how I talk, and make it a point not to sound like a corporate drone, or even sound “polished”/edited.

    I just hate that B.S./ fake “corporate talk” so much, that I make it a point to be as straightforward as possible, thinking to myself “If this is too straightforward and it shocks people away, so be it” – almost like, I’d rather lose people and not be fake, than stoop down to the “corporate talk” level again and connect with some of those people.

    I’m now starting to think however that to some/many corporate people, they expect to communicate in a certain way when doing business, and they may not respond to straightforward language (I remember when I would snub my nose at the kind of writing I look up to and write today).

    So my question is that – isn’t it best to just write in a way that would resonate best with your audience, even if it is totally contrary to how you personally communicate, and the kind of communication you personally respect? In my example, maybe that means not totally going back to the “corporate-talk” and still being upfront, but peppering some of the language these people are used to hearing so I come off as an insider?

    What’s the puck is the Algonquin list?

    1. John Carlton

      Not always, Jiyaad (if that is your real name). (Just kidding.)

      The point we make — and I thought very eloquently — is that it’s NEVER a simple decision. You need to totally understand your audience, from inside their skulls and inside their frank conversation… but ALSO understand when you’re breaking rapport by intruding into their heads with inappropriate language (whether it’s dirty or not).

      And trying to communicate with anyone, in any manner (writing or speaking), using language you’re not comfortable with is a recipe for disaster. The best writers write enough (every day, all the time, critically and with self-awareness) to find their “voice”… which may vary from their normal speaking voice, but not from the way they THINK about language. That will forever be your best communication tool… as long as you are aiming it at the right audience. I, for example, swear like a sailor among colleagues, friends, clients and customers who share my predilection for harsh language. But I do NOT bring on the harsh for audiences that aren’t prepared for it, or would be offended by it.

      My house list and social media fans get the full brunt of my love of colloquial language. Prospects are often treated with kid gloves.

      So, the answer is: You gotta figure it out for yourself.

      And no, you will never find out what the Algonquin list is. Big secret. Sorry.

  2. Dan

    Great insight as per usual! But I love the intro to this show!

    And ya that debate was pretty epic interesting to see your position on it. Cheers guys 🙂

    1. John Carlton

      Thanks for the note, Dan. Mostly, we think we’re operating in a vacuum, heard by very few folks. In truth, it’s in the thousands each month, but because we never hear from anyone, we feel like we’re just shuckin’ and jivin’ at a dirty table in the back of the room, long after the bar’s closed.

      Maybe that’s a good thing…

  3. Gerry

    As David Ogilvy once wrote, “‘… now, what do you want out of me? Fine writing? Do you want masterpieces? Do you want glowing things that can be framed by copywriters? Or do you want to see the goddamned sales curve stop moving down and start moving up?’”

    There is a time and place for every word in our wonderful language.

    1. John Carlton

      Great example, Gerry. Ogilvy would never swear in an ad, but he knew when to jack up the language and when to tone it down — the “art” of using words to persuade and influence.

      Clients need to be sworn at. Often. With vigor and imagination. Fucking bastards…

  4. Jiyaad

    Awesome reply John thanks!!

    And you just added another goal on my bucket list 🙂

    I now must find out what that list is, dang it!

    I mean this in the most respectful way, you’re a big tease – and I know that you know that now I have to know what the list is!!

  5. Peter Michaels

    Guys, ‘cute Brit’ here…

    I’m not on Facebook so didn’t see the flame-war that prompted this entertaining chat. Great to hear your take on the subject though.

    I try to think about language – not just cussin’ but language generally in my copy – like this: every word is essentially two words…

    There’s the word and its meaning to you, and there’s the word with its meaning to your reader. So the meaning of each word to you can be very different to how it’s read and received.

    I’m talking not just about how one person will skim smoothly over a ‘fuck’ like most people skim over ‘crap’s and ‘darn’s – while others may run screaming from the room at the sight of anything stronger than ‘shucks’…

    But also about technical terms, slang and jargon: some you can use liberally when you know your reader understands them the same way, while others need to be left out or at least treated like peppers in a hotpot.

    Incidentally, the one thing likely to cause teeth-gnashing outrage in this excellent ep was Kev’s claiming AC/DC’s Brian Johnson is a Scotsman. Dude’s from my hometown of Dunston, north-east England and was a boyhood buddy of my old man. Try telling any Geordie that one of their most famous sons is from north of the border and that’s when the shizzle really would hit the fan ; )

    1. Kevin Rogers

      Unforgivable, Peter. I’m red with shame.

      Great take, too, about words having two meanings. (And it makes me wonder…)

      Leads into another shameful language lesson we didn’t get to… I used a word in a recent email that, turns out, is a whole lot meaner across the ocean than in my myopic little world.

      A Brit writer was kind enough to point it out so I know better (you guys are good like that), and that was all I heard on it. But still… the lesson remains, anyone communicating through a subscriber list is talking to the world now. Our vocabs need to expand accordingly.

      As does my rock research.

      Apology shots on me next we meet.


    2. John Carlton

      Hey, we all live by our myths, Peter. I love being able to read “real” or at least better-sourced stories about my fave bands, having spent half my life with no Information Age, and needing to pour over bad rock mags (like Trouser Press and Teen Beat) just for snippets of the inside story. What the hell do we know from Scotland or north England, anyway? We can’t draw a decent map of our own states…

      Great conceptualization of the “two meanings” thing, too. For us, words are just tools. But we HAVE to be cognizant that for others, simple words are time bombs, insults and proof of immorality and worse. Good stuff…

  6. Michael stJohn van Eeden

    Its such a privilege to hear you guys.. I always thought how cool it would be too hang out ,, with you guys back when ,South of Jewfish Creek …. Fear & Loathing type stuff !!
    But with a ton of cash flowing ..LOL

    But also to you John ,, and Kevin and the Late Great G , you have shown me that its alright to let myself come out in my writing , to relax a bit , be more normal . This has taken a lot of stress from my writing .

    Freedom to be me , get my point across , in a totally dif way me way … Im just a newbie now , but coming on …… So really thanks again for this hugh / crazy value you guys are giving here …Michael…

  7. Will Compton


    Great show today! Thanks so much for putting out all these amazing insights from a grizzled pro.

    I would have commented sooner.. but I had to go back, listen for a second time and take copious notes.

    Here’s some questions I came up with: Do you think copywriting falls under the First Amendment? It must… right? Of course, you can’t lie, that’s fraud and there’s consequences but everything else is protected right?

    Have you read George Orwell’s book 1984 where the Ministry of Truth has edited the language down to almost a new language called Newspeak? Their goal being to remove words like dissent so that the population could not use the words to think about the ideas behind them. And have you heard about the campaign to ban the word bossy? Mind-blowing, huh?

    I love the quote by Mark Twain (I think it was) about how censorship is like telling a man he can’t have a steak because a baby can’t chew it.

    I feel like trying to censor a word is a collective solution to an individual problem. If you’re offended by a word that’s your problem. Because, in the end… the only thing we can control is our own reactions.

    Personally, I’m thankful to guys like Lenny Bruce who charged over the trench and threw himself on the barbed wire so everyone could climb over him and say what we want without going to court over it. Where would be today if there weren’t guys like him in the past? We’d be the ones running into the barbed wire…

    And don’t worry about the cut outs… it’s fun watching the sausage get made… right?

    All the best,

    P.S. Kevin, I listened to Green Day as a child and I believe it played a role in my constant questioning of authority, which lead me to the rewarding career of copywriting (because bosses don’t like questions apparently!).

    P.P.S. Here’s a link to the video of George Carlin’s 7 Words You Can’t Say On TV:

    1. John Carlton

      Hi Will. I’m not a lawyer. However, I know the entire scope of the First Amendment has not been completely settled regarding anything — there are still states prosecuting folks for saying “bad words” in public, and where many direct mail outfits refuse to mail anything (cuz of loose, non-free-speech laws that make anything sexual or suggestive a criminal act). (Those states also, by the way, consume the most Web porn, but there you go.)

      Why don’t you look into this, and get back to us? Homework, if you will. It’s a great question, and worth researching…

      1. Will Compton

        Yes sir… reporting back from my mission.

        Here’s what I found: Copywriting (or “commercial speech”) is protected under the First Amendment… but less so than political speech.

        Here’s why: In the 1980 landmark case, Central Hudson Gas & Electric Corp.vs. Public Service Commission of New York, the Supreme Court ruled that a state must justify restrictions on legal truthful advertising by demonstrating its actions “directly advance” a substantial state interest and are only extensive enough to serve that interest.

        So the burden of proof is on the state.

        The 1993 court case Edenfield vs. Fane summarized the protection of commercial speech under the First Amednment…:

        “The commercial market place, like other spheres of our social and cultural life, provides a forum where ideas and information flourish. Some of the ideas and information are vital, some of slight worth. But the general rule is that the speaker and the audience, not the government, assess the value of the information presented. Thus, even a communication that does no more than propose a commercial transaction is entitled to the coverage of the First Amendment.”

        I also found about the Miller Test for determining what the court considers obscene: “(a)…‘the average person, applying contemporary community standards’ would find the work, as a whole, appeals to the prurient interest,…(b)…the work depicts or describes, in a patently offensive way, sexual conduct specifically defined by the applicable state law, and (c)…the work, taken as a whole, lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value.” – Miller vs. California, 1973

        …which is probably why those mailers won’t mail anything about sex to certain states with Puritan laws.

        * Disclaimer: I’m not a lawyer

        1. John Carlton

          Thanks, Will! Great stuff.

          The old “community standards” test. I remember it well — it’s not pulled out so much anymore, because the most Puritan states also happen to consume the most porn (via cable, DVD sales, and mag subscriptions)… an inconvenient fact to have floated in court.

          Basically, nobody knows nothin’ about nothin’ when it comes to what’s offensive and what isn’t (or shouldn’t be). So judges keep going back to the old “I know when I see it” defense, which is total fucking bullshit for any rational person.

          The worst of the worst, as far as prosecutions go, are the most repressed and the biggest hypocrites. This is why even cursory psychological examinations can lay bare the ridiculousness of any argument about “what people SHOULD want” or “SHOULD do”. In advertising, we don’t care what they think they “should” do… we care about what they DO.

          I honestly cannot see an end to the culture wars in this country… only an uneasy alliance on the coasts (and a few enlightened spots like Austin and Boulder City), and total cognitive dissonance everywhere. It’s ever been thus, and apparently forever shall.

          Fortunately, writers continue to slowly accumulate basic protections and win the war against censorship… but it’s a never-ending battle…


    Great! I enjoy the Podcast and the comments.

    I wanted just to say hello, I am with you!

    Thanks to Rogers, John and you all.

  9. Nick Charlton

    A couple of decades ago I watched Billy Connolly doing his comedy routine on TV. And he did this skit about when you whack your thumb with a hammer.

    You don’t say to yourself, “Oh dear. I appear to have hit my thumb with my hammer. What a clumsy oaf I am.”


    You say, “FUCK ME! That hurt.”

    So I wonder what these people – who are so easily offended by effing and jeffing – would say if they hit their thumb with a hammer. Do we really believe they wouldn’t curse like a sailor in private?

    And on a related note…

    I’ve often wondered if one of the reasons the Grandfathers of Copywriting recommend using short, simple words is because those are the words we use when we think. The automatic, uncensored, internal dialogue voice (whatever that’s called).

  10. K'Sennia V

    I was raised in a very conservative Christian family, so cursing was just not something I ever heard as a kid. When I was around 6 or 7 I had a more worldly friend write down the F word on a napkin because I was dying to know what it was. But when I read what she wrote I was sure she was mistaken and was quite upset, I was like, “that’s not a real word.” Because it didn’t sound like a real word.

    And when I hit my thumb I would say, “ow, ow, ow,” and hop around a lot. “giggles”

    People use the words they know. If you are sheltered and censored enough you won’t even think them since you don’t know them.

    I think my case was pretty unusual though. But still, if you never get certain words in your head you won’t think or say them.

    Once I got older and was allowed to watch whatever I wanted to on TV and on DVD then I learned all those words. They used to repeat in loops in my head. Mostly unwanted since I’d been taught they were wrong. I will write them occasionally now when I’m talking with certain friends, but I’ve only ever said a few of them, and have only had one “damn” ever slip out in conversation when I was talking to people who don’t talk like that.

    If you live in the real world they are everywhere, and I agree that they’re just words. They only offend some because bad meaning are assigned to them and then little children are taught they are offensive. If you continue to live in protected bubble world then any time you do step out and hear an f bomb or even simple hit with an s it truly is shocking and troubling.

    There was a time when certain words would fill me with revulsion and make me feel dirty and guilty and full of shame, just by hearing them. But that was the programming and indoctrination from my childhood. It’s amazing how different Christian world is from the real world.

    When I grew up and was trying to straddle bubble world and real world at the same time it was extremely hard to reconcile the two. I’m not sure if curse words have so much power and are so popular because religion made them powerful, so it activates the ‘rebellion switch” in people.

    I can say “fuck you,” or at least write it and at certain times it does make me feel more powerful. It’s weird. I even like the sound of it now, but it took years and years of overcoming all the brainwashing from my childhood and a lot of interaction with real people who say those words all the time because they are a normal part of their vocabulary to get comfortable with it.

    So I can see both sides of the issue now. I say write what comes naturally to you, but if you’re writing for a bubble audience it helps if you can feel the revulsion certain words have. Bubble minds are wired so completely different from normal ones that it’s inconceivable for minds who have always been free.

  11. Brian

    John, in reply to your comment above:
    “we feel like we’re just shuckin’ and jivin’ at a dirty table in the back of the room, long after the bar’s closed.

    Maybe that’s a good thing… ”

    It’s an AWESOME thing. What more could we ask for?

  12. George

    I think the BEST example of this for me is the Coat of Arms letter by Gary Halbert. That thing just resonates with me on so many levels as far as copywriting mastery goes.


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