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Taboos and bad language in the mouths of politicians and in advertising

Abstract and Keywords

The more that image matters, the more that profanities and taboos can affect the standing of an individual or brand. Profanity is able to make the individual who employs it seem dominant, amusing, or companionable. While there may be situations where it has a positive effect, however, there are others where it can be negative. It can make someone seem thoughtless, rude, out of control, or even threatening. Similarly, the breaking of cultural taboos can assist an individual in forming bonds, or cause them to be excluded, depending on the situation. The more that image is foregrounded as a concept in a given forum, the more that this becomes a danger. This chapter will look at the use and abuse of profanity and taboos in both advertising and politics, considering why it is so often avoided, as well as looking at what happens when it is not. There are numerous examples drawn from real life and these are framed within the discussion.

Keywords: taboos, profanity, insult, politics, advertising, appropriacy

17.1 Introduction

Swearing is a lot like farting—it’s something most of us do, but some of us are less public about it than others. One of the rare scholarly works on the subject of profanity, Holy Sh*t by Melissa Mohr, claims that roughly 0.7% of daily words used are profanities, which may not sound like a lot, but means the average person swears roughly once every 150 words spoken (Mohr 2013). This is likely to be at least partly therapeutic, as swearing is a proven pain reliever and peacefully allows verbal rather than physical retribution (Kruszelnicki 2015). If profanity is so useful, therefore, it surely merits more discussion than it has received in the past. Michael Adams has argued that, despite the best efforts of educators and prescriptive linguists, taboo language is not going anywhere, is inescapable, and should therefore be considered as part of culture and discourse (Adams 2002: 353).

Profanity can, in some circumstances, make the swearer seem in-control, funny, or disarmingly like-minded. However, while there are situations in which swearing can be useful for social bonding, there are others where it can have a detrimental effect on status and how others regard the swearer. It can indicate that they are ignorant, crass, insensitive, out of control, or even threatening. Cultural taboos, also, have a similar effect. Their breaking can identify an individual as in-group, or lead to their alienation, depending on prevailing social currents and mores. The more that image is foregrounded as a concept in a given forum, the more that this becomes a danger.

(p. 312) Two industries in which image is significantly central are politics and advertising. In fact, differentiating between the two can be somewhat problematic, in that politicians necessarily advertise themselves through their public actions, and, as any cultural theorist would argue at length, advertising is an inherently politicized process (Dines and Humez 2011). Both politicians and advertisers typically try to present themselves as ‘one of us’ but with the estimate that we swear more than once every one hundred and fifty words (Mohr 2013), why is there then such a paucity of evidence of politicians and advertising doing so publicly, and why is it so noteworthy when they do? Why are taboos—and their challenging—also at once such a powerful strategy and a potential detonator for career implosion?

This chapter will look at the use and abuse of profanity and taboos in both advertising and politics, offering a rationale for why it is so often avoided, as well as exploring in considerable depth what happens when it is not. It will offer numerous examples drawn from real life and frame these within the overall discussion. One caveat is that some of these examples are anecdotal, and this has been noted where applicable.

It is obviously in the interest of politicians in particular to maintain a consistent image with inoffensively broad appeal, and part of that means either playing down or outright lying about things which make them appear less than polished. Few people would wish to be placed under the constant scrutiny that is a feature of public life and fewer still would emerge from it with their image untarnished. Conversely, it is clearly in the interest of partisan news providers to depict the political figures on the opposing side in as poor a light as possible, and hearsay is almost impossible to confirm.

17.2 Why profanity and taboos?

To begin, it might be useful to examine some of the reasons for both the employment and evasion of profanity and taboo topics in advertising and politics.

In an essay from 2015 entitled ‘How to use swear words in your fucking marketing,’ communications expert Doug Kessler expounded on the positives and negatives of swearing from a marketing perspective. He noted that the positives included creating surprise; expressing confidence, building rapport with like-minded others, suggesting authenticity, startling for humorous effect, underscoring passion, and developing a voice in writing. However, the problems Kessler notes include the fact that the swearer might seem crass and that this may well harm the brand they represent. Brand identity is central to both politics and advertising, and he makes the point that, no matter how much one may swear in daily life, the world is not yet ready for ‘Nike. Just fucking do it’ or ‘McDonald’s. I’m fuckin’ lovin’ it’ (Kessler 2015).

Taboos are not only limited to profanity, but also sensitive subjects. Politicians and advertisers have a tendency to flirt with the shifting borders of appropriacy, and one of the (p. 313) fixtures of campaigns of both types, particularly in the United States and Australia, has been a backlash against the limitations placed upon public speech. In other words, it has become an acceptable defence for politicians and advertisers who adopt stances which are generally considered to be socially unacceptable, such as homophobia, overt racism, or open misogyny, to say that they are taking a stand against what is often described as ‘political correctness.’ In this way, even prejudice and intolerance can be transformed into apparent virtues.

That being said, today’s edgy joke is tomorrow’s hate crime, and few of the advertisements or political speeches of this type from earlier decades stand up well to scrutiny in the present day. Examples of these will be explored in Sections 17.5 and 17.7.

Something else to consider, particularly in politics, is the public/private divide. Political speech and advertising are subject to scrutiny from the press, the public, and various regulators. Words tend to be carefully considered by speechwriters, policy advisors, copywriters, account managers, and clients before being expressed. However, swearing by politicians is hardly new. After all, they are still human beings, and stressed ones at that.

Most politicians and advertisers—either consciously or reflexively—display public and private faces, thus taboos and bad language are obviously less frequent in formal situations than in more spontaneous, closeted communication. Abuse, vituperation, and mockery are very much a part of political backrooms, but tend not to make the formal speeches. The situation is hardly new. In 1601, a controversial Jesuit called Thomas Wright was under house arrest at the residence of the Dean of Westminster. As a member of the losing religious team of the day in England, Wright was no stranger to political machinations and the difference between public and private faces. In his book The Passions of the Minde, the first edition of which was published that same year, he wrote:

Certaine men entertaine their company with scoffing, nipping, gibing and quipping: they thinke to haue wonne a great victorie, if in discouering some others defect, they can make the company laugh merrily: they will seeme to make much of you, but to the embracements of scorpions follow stinging tailes.

Wright 1604: 175–6

Swearing and other forms of bad language are often regarded as undignified and, more importantly in the case of politicians, can indicate loss of control. These traits are undesirable attributes for those charged with leading nations. Whilst similar concerns apply to advertising, various codes of conduct and regulatory mechanisms are in place to supress the urge for copywriters to indulge in unfettered public profanity. They may, and often do, swear without reserve in the office, but this does not make it onto the page. However, politicians are in a different situation. They may feel that they are in private, but even their unguarded moments can become a matter of public record at any time. When public swearing breaks through the filters, it has the power to surprise and offend. Exposure and offence can even happen years after the event. This point in the present (p. 314) discussion, therefore, seems the right time to take a look at some examples of politicians whose hidden faces have been uncovered.

17.3 Behind closed doors: what politicians say about the public

Although it may not always seem to be the case, politicians are ostensibly servants of the people. It is from the people that their power and position derive, but this also means that their actions tend to be dictated by the vagaries of public opinion. Everyone complains if their boss is an idiot, but what about when one’s boss is a million idiots? It should come, therefore, as no surprise that politicians frequently direct invective at the public when they think they’re out of the hearing range of the masses.

When Morris Udall recognized his loss in the 1976 Presidential Primaries he said, ‘The voters have spoken—the bastards’ (Dole 1998: 51). Even the much-admired George Washington unleashed a stream of profanity after the Revolutionary War’s Battle of Monmouth Courthouse when he ‘swore that day till the leaves shook on the trees’ (O’Donnell 2016).

Two-time unsuccessful US Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, known for her careful maintenance of public persona, has faced persistent claims of letting the mask slip in private. These are based primarily on the individual recollection of the claimants, so are difficult to substantiate and, as with any politician, there are reasons for others to make accusations that would tarnish her image. Christopher Andersen states that, while waiting for photographers, she said to husband Bill, ‘Just keep smiling until these assholes get their pictures’ (Andersen 2004: 114). At an Arkansas County Fair, following a conversation with a family dressed in overalls and cotton dresses, James Stewart reports that she apparently remarked to her bodyguard, L. D. Brown, ‘Goddam L. D., did you see that family right out of Deliverance? Get me the hell out of here!’ (Stewart 1996: 105). Another person has claimed that, during an Easter Egg Hunt for developmentally challenged children at the Arkansas Governor’s Mansion, she asked, ‘When are they going to get those fucking retards out of here?’ (Kyle 2016). Whether or not these claims are true, either option leads to an interesting—although distinct—conclusion. If the accusations are accurate, then the gap between Clinton’s public and private identity would seem to be considerable and a deeply-hidden hypocrisy is revealed through language choice. If not, then the claims—and many others of the same sort—suggest that attacking character through representing an individual such as Clinton as profane is considered by political and ideological opponents to be an effective strategy, as well as a profitable hook for website-traffic book sales.

It is common for groups critical of Government funding programs to attack Government, but it is not always prudent. On 3 May 2010, with the thirty-sixth G8 Summit approaching, Senator Nancy Ruth of Canada offered a raft of potentially vocal women’s groups and international aid advocates clear guidance that if they sought (p. 315) Government funds, overt criticism during an event with an international profile was not the most prudent way to secure it. ‘If you push it [the criticism], there will be more backlash,’ she explained. To underline this sage advice more directly, she recommended that they ‘[s]hut the fuck up’ (Toronto Star 2010).

On 6 January 2016 the enduringly frank Australian Senator David Leyonhjelm abused a Twitter user, saying ‘@labourareliars I’d call you a cunt. And probably a rude name after that’ (Hunter 2016). That same week, the Minister for Immigration and Border Protection, Peter Dutton, declared that a journalist was a ‘Mad fucking witch’ in a text intended for colleague Jamie Briggs, but sent erroneously to the journalist in question, Samantha Maiden, Political Editor of the Sunday Telegraph. Ms Maiden responded, ‘You know mate, you’ve sent that mad witch text to the mad witch’ (Medhora 2016).

Naturally, sometimes the public feels the urge to return the favour. The 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago was besieged by protestors chanting ‘Fuck you, Lyndon Johnson’ to the President on his birthday. At that same event Mayor Richard Daley hectored a speech by Abraham Ribicoff by shouting ‘Fuck you’. He later explained, somewhat unconvincingly, that he had been shouting ‘You fink, you’ and calling the speaker a ‘Faker’ (Cohen and Taylor 2000: 478).

17.4 To their faces and behind their backs: what politicians say about each other

Lively political speech is common, and expletive-laden exchanges are a fact of public life, no matter how prestigious the position an individual may occupy. What happens behind closed doors is often surprising to political outsiders. One example of this comes from President Lyndon B. Johnson, who would sometimes talk to Cabinet Members from his toilet seat. Referring to a speech by then Vice President Richard Nixon he opined, ‘Boys, I may not know much, but I do know the difference between chicken shit and chicken salad’ (Popik 2009).

Technology has also allowed reporters to capture speech that the individuals concerned might prefer to stay private. An infamous exchange by car phone on Saturday 23 March 1987, between the Victorian Premier Jeff Kennett and the former Australian Liberal Leader Andrew Peacock was intercepted by scanner. It followed a strong State election result, and was highly critical of Opposition Leader John Howard, about whom both men were less than flattering. The call made front page news and led to the dumping of Peacock from the Front Bench. Some highlights from the transcript are given below:

KENNETT: He got on the phone and said are you happy with the result, and I said ‘No I’m not’, and he said ‘Why?’ and I said ‘Without your front pages and total disunity I’d have had ten-percent swing. I would have got myself another four and you’ve fucked it up for me and he went off his brain. […] Hold your flow. I said, ‘Tomorrow John’ and he said, ‘I know where your sympathies lie’, and I said, ‘I couldn’t give a fuck. I have no sympathies any more. You’re all a pack of shits and tomorrow I’m going berserk’. Well he went off his brain and in the end I said to him, I said, ‘Howard. You’re a cunt. You haven’t got my support, you never will have and I’m not going to rubbish you or the party tomorrow but I feel a lot better having told you you’re a cunt.’

PEACOCK: Oh shit!

KENNETT: Well, all I can say. I thought I should let you know where I ended up with your little mate …

PEACOCK: Well, fuck him. I’m not worried. I just … I almost bloody cried. I was terribly worried. I was terribly worried. My fuckin’ anger yesterday as Margaret knows. First thing I came in last night I said ‘Oh, fuckin’ cunt! I said the whole fuckin’ thing could upset tomorrow’ I was really … And she was saying ‘What’s Jeffrey done?’ and I was saying ‘It’s not what Jeffrey’s done. It’s what everyone’s fucking done to Jeffrey.’ (Australian Politics 1987)

Clearly politicians swear, but prefer to do so when out of the public eye. For example, on board a VIP flight, fourteen months before he took his job, Malcolm Turnbull allegedly berated then Prime Minister Tony Abbott about his performance, ‘You’re fucking hopeless, you’re a fucking cunt, you should resign.’ It is claimed Turnbull said this in front of three Cabinet Ministers and five Coalition employees (Nine News 2017).

17.5 You can’t say cunt in question time: lexical choice and political profanity

A legacy of Richard Nixon’s Watergate is the phrase ‘expletive deleted’—born from the removal of offensive words from transcripts of the Watergate tapes in 1974. TIME reported, ‘Those who have heard him speak in private say that the swearwords he commonly uses are both blasphemous and obscene. [They] include four-letter words that are salacious and scatological’ (Rothman 2016).

17.5.1 Shit

Of the profanities regularly uttered, shit is sufficiently commonplace to pass with little comment today, although Tony Abbott was filmed responding to one soldier telling him about the death of another in Afghanistan. His reply was, ‘It’s pretty obvious that, well, (p. 317) sometimes shit happens, doesn’t it?’ (Dick 2011). Abbott was Prime Minister of Australia at the time, and the words caused a furore, but this was because of their apparent insensitivity rather than the choice of language itself.

Reacting to criticism of Russian bombings in Syria, Donald Trump indicated he would bomb the oil fields controlled by the Islamic State, which he referred to as ISIS:

ISIS is making a tremendous amount of money because they have certain oil caps, right? They have certain areas of oil that they took away, they have some in Syria, some in Iraq. I would bomb the shit out of ’em.

Far from exciting condemnation, this remark was greeted with loud applause (Engel 2015).

17.5.2 Fuck

Sir Richard Turnbull, the penultimate High Commissioner to Aden from 1965 to 1967 suggested, ‘When the British Empire finally sinks beneath the waves of history, it will leave behind it only two memorials: one is the game of Association Football and the other is the expression “Fuck Off” ’ ( In the mid 1990s, Tony Blair became the Leader of the British Labour Party. In a public debate, controversial left-winger George Galloway was teased about Labour moving to the Right under their new Leader. Galloway promptly rebutted ‘I don’t give a fuck what Tony Blair thinks’ (Waller and Criddle 1996).

Fuck was ruled not to be offensive language in the context of political protest by Sydney magistrate Geoffrey Bradd in a ruling from 25 October 2016. April Holcombe, Cat Rose, and Patrick Hilderhand were three people charged with using offensive language at an event protesting against an anti-same sex marriage organized by Reverend Fred Nile and his Christian Democrat Party. The pro-marriage equality protestors called their opponents ‘fuckers,’ yelled ‘bigots fuck off’ and personalized their abuse by shrieking ‘Fuck Fred Nile’ at the ageing Parliamentarian. Magistrate Bradd threw out the charges, arguing the swearing was used: ‘to dismiss the argument against marriage equality’ rather than cause offence. Penalty notices for offensive language are invalid under criminal procedure laws which prevent their issuance during ‘an apparently genuine demonstration or protest’. The court heard Ms Rose argue that fuck was ‘part of the common vernacular’, prompting a police officer to contend it was ‘not part of children’s vernacular’ and there were families at the park, but the magistrate found that whether the word fuck is part of a child’s vernacular ‘depends on the words that a child listens to from others’. The word was therefore only considered offensive if it was ‘calculated to wound the feelings, arouse anger or resentment or disgust, and outrage in the mind of a reasonable person’ he explained, adding that phrases such as ‘you fucking beauty’ and ‘fucking hell’ were unlikely to be offensive (Whitbourn 2016).

(p. 318) The use of this particular profanity can also be a demonstration of power, however. When the Greek Ambassador Alexandros Matsas objected vehemently to American plans in Cyprus, President Lyndon Johnson responded ‘Fuck your parliament and your constitution. America is an elephant. Cyprus is a flea. Greece is a flea. If these two fellows continue itching the elephant they may just get whacked by the elephant’s trunk, whacked good’ (Deane 1976: 113–14).

17.5.3 You can’t say cunt in Question Time.

Germaine Greer argues that ‘cunt … is one of the few remaining words in the English language with a genuine power to shock.’ The prominent feminist and English Professor said:

I love the idea that this word is still so sacred that you can use it like a torpedo: you can hole people below the water line; you can make strong men go pale … It is a word of immense power, to be used sparingly.

The C words 2006

Christopher Pyne, a longstanding Minister in the Liberal Party of Australia fired a stealth torpedo in Question Time on Wednesday 14 May 2014, by apparently muttering, sotto voce to Opposition Leader Bill Shorten, ‘You’re such a cunt’. Speaker Bronwyn Bishop responded, ‘The Minister will refer people by their correct title.’ Mr Pyne replied ‘I will, Madame Speaker. I withdraw.’ Unfortunately for Minister Pyne, microphones picked up his observation, and it was replayed on radio and tut-tutted about in the press. Even in Australia you can’t say ‘cunt’ in Question Time. A spokesman claimed he’d actually said ‘You’re such a grub’ (Jabour 2014), but the recording suggests this was not the case (Crane 2015).

Pyne had form. On a popular breakfast television show he had a regular Tuesday discussion with Shadow Minister Anthony Albanese. After intense debate about leadership speculation within his Government, Mr Albanese said, ‘See you with a new Leader next week’. Pyne immediately and cheerfully farewelled his political opponent with the words ‘See you next Tuesday’—a commonly understood allusion to the word cunt in consequence of it being an acronym, if ‘See’ is taken as ‘C’ (cf. C U N T, Crane 2015).

The word was more amusingly embraced by former Prime Minister, Gough Whitlam. On 24 May 2000, he was debating the proposition ‘That Politicians Have Lost Their Sense Of Humour’ he recalled an earlier incident in the House. When Sir Winton Turnbull shouted: ‘I am a Country member’ Whitlam interjected, ‘I remember’ (Murphy 2014).

Yet more elegantly, during the Second World War, Sir Archibald Clark Kerr, Her Majesty’s Ambassador to Moscow, had one Mustapha Kunt on staff. He wrote about this to Lord Pembroke at the Foreign Office on 6 April 1943.

(p. 319)



My dear Reggie,

In these dark days one tends to look for little shafts of light that spill from heaven. My days are probably darker than yours, and I need, my God I do, all the light I can get. But I am a decent fellow, and do not want to be mean and selfish about what little brightness is shed upon me from time to time. So I propose to share with you a tiny flash that has illuminated my sombre life and tell you that God has given me a new Turkish colleague whose card tells me that he is called Mustapha Kunt.

 We all feel like that, Reggie, now and then, especially when Spring is upon us, but few of us would care to put it on our cards. It takes a Turk to do that.

Sir Archibald Clerk Kerr.

H. M. Ambassador.

17.6 Popularity contests: politics and taboos

Taboos are always relative, shifting in both context and force over time. Of these, none have undergone such changes as racism and misogyny. Casually racist entertainment of a type which seems impossible to modern audiences survived well into the twentieth century, whether in the form of Mickey Rooney’s outraged (and outrageous) Japanese caricature in 1961’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s or The Black and White Minstrel Show, which continued to be made—astonishingly—until 1978.

Misogyny has become even more entrenched. Politicians have always tried to be sensitive to changes in the climate of discourse, but their subsequent public adoption of it has tended to lag far behind community behaviour. In 2004, Senator John McCain told reporters: ‘I hated the gooks. I will hate them as long as I live.’ McCain had been tortured as a prisoner of war during the Vietnam War, but it was an unusual announcement for a man who would need the Asian vote four years later as the Republican Presidential candidate (Nevius, Sandalow, and Wildermuth 2000).

17.6.1 The N word

Nigger, derived from the Latin Adjective Niger, was once a respectable word, but has become an utterly unacceptable term of racial abuse and a taboo, particularly in the mouths of politicians. Few politicians have a career progression that illustrates the changing attitude towards public expression of racism so evidently as Governor George (p. 320) Wallace of Alabama. Initially, he was a persistent racist. On 14 February 1958 in his first Gubernatorial campaign he asserted:

We shall continue to maintain segregation in Alabama completely and absolutely without violence or ill-will … I advocate hatred of no man, because hate will only compound the problems facing the South … We ask for patience and tolerance and make an earnest request that we be allowed to handle state and local affairs without outside interference.

Lesher 1995

That same year he said to his campaign adviser and confidante, Seymour Trammell, ‘I was out-niggered by John Patterson. And I’ll tell you here and now, I will never be out-niggered again.’ He referred to Governor John Patterson who won the Gubernatorial race with the support of the Ku Klux Klan (George Wallace 2000).

There can be little doubt that his voters supported his racist stance. In an oft-attributed quote it is claimed Wallace said, ‘I tried to talk about good roads and good schools and all these things that have been part of my career, and nobody listened. And then I began talking about niggers, and they stomped the floor’ (George Wallace 2000). In his Inaugural Speech as Governor of Alabama in January 1963, he said:

It is very appropriate that from this cradle of the Confederacy, this very heart of the great Anglo-Saxon Southland, that today we sound the drum for freedom as have our generations of forebears before us time and again down through history. Let us rise to the call for freedom-loving blood that is in us and send our answer to the tyranny that clanks its chains upon the South. In the name of the greatest people that have ever trod this earth, I draw the line in the dust and toss the gauntlet before the feet of tyranny, and I say segregation now, segregation tomorrow and segregation forever.

George Wallace 2000

By the 1970s, he had softened his stance. In an address to the Montgomery Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in 1979, he said, ‘I have learned what suffering means. In a way that was impossible, I think I can understand something of the pain black people have come to endure. I know I contributed to that pain, and I can only ask your forgiveness’ (McCarthy 1995). In a speech in 1979 he said, ‘I was wrong. Those days are over, and they ought to be over’ (Edwards et al. 2009: 80).

West Virginian Senator Robert Byrd offers another, if less penitent, example. When young, he was a member of the Ku Klux Klan. He disavowed racism as his political career blossomed, but three years after he had parted ways with them he wrote to the Imperial Wizard, ‘The Klan is needed today as never before and I am anxious to see its rebirth here in West Virginia’ and ‘in every state in the Union’ (Malkin 2001). During an interview with Fox News in March 2001, the eighty-three-year-old said that race relations were:

… much, much better than they’ve ever been in my lifetime … I think we talk about race too much. I think those problems are largely behind us. I think we try to have (p. 321) good will. My old mom told me, ‘Robert, you can’t go to heaven if you hate anybody.’ We practice that. There are white niggers. I’ve seen a lot of white niggers in my time; I’m going to use that word. We just need to work together to make our country a better country, and I’d just as soon quit talking about it so much.

An ABC article quotes the head of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s President, Kweisi Mfume, as being ‘not particularly impressed by Byrd’s apology’ and that ‘the fact that Byrd felt comfortable enough on nationwide TV to refer to any group in that manner suggests that any progress he has made on race is relative.’ Byrd’s remark he judged ‘both repulsive and revealing,’ saying he assumed that Byrd’s apology was well meant, but also there comes a time when a person has to avoid making remarks that require apologies (ABC News 2001).

After losing an election to JoAnn Bennett Grimsley, Patsy Capshaw Skipper—the former mayor of Midland City, Alabama—wrote on Facebook, ‘I lost. The nigger won.’ The constituent replied ‘I’m so sorry’ (Imchills 2016). Texas governor Rick Perry had a hunting area called ‘Nigger’s Head.’ After this was reported during the 2008 Presidential Primaries the name at the entryway disappeared very quickly indeed.

Arkansas state trooper and Clinton bodyguard Larry Patterson from 1986 to 1993 claimed that he frequently heard Bill Clinton use ‘nigger’ to refer to both Jesse Jackson and local Little Rock black leader Robert ‘Say’ McIntosh. Further he stated that he heard Hillary say ‘nigger’ ‘probably six, eight, ten times … She would be upset with someone in the black community and she would use the “N” word, like, you heard they’ve got the president’s brother on tape using the “N” word’ (Aman 2005). Dolly Kyle Browning—claimed to be one of Bill Clinton’s lovers—corroborated his use of the pejorative word. ‘Not only did he use the “N” word, he called him a “GDN” [goddamn nigger], if you catch my drift,’ Browning told Fox News in 1999. Browning explained, ‘He has used the “N” word before. Bill would make snide remarks about blacks behind their backs’ (Aman 2005).

There are many in the Clinton camp who would deny these and similar allegations. Given the partisan nature of political life, it is generally impossible to be sure exactly what was said unless it was somehow recorded. However, it cannot be denied that, at the Martin Luther King Day celebration in Canaan Baptist Church of Christ, Harlem on 16 January 2006, Hillary Clinton displayed an astonishing lack of public appropriacy when she said, ‘When you look at the way the House of Representatives has been run, it has been run like a plantation, and you know what I’m talkin’ about’ (Bruce 2013: 226).

As a Presidential candidate, Donald Trump was never afraid to offer a headline-grabbing contentious quote such as his tone-deaf claim ‘I have a great relationship with the blacks. I’ve always had a great relationship with the blacks’ (Franke-Ruta 2011).

17.6.2 Anti-Semitism

Richard Nixon believed races had traits, and was discovered expounding on this theory on the Oval Office audiotapes. The Washington Post reported that in a taped (p. 322) conversation dated 13 February 1973, Nixon opined, ‘The Jews have certain traits. The Irish have certain—for example, the Irish can’t drink … The Italians, of course, just don’t have their heads screwed on tight. They are wonderful people, but … The Jews are just a very aggressive and abrasive and obnoxious personality’ (Nagourney 2010).

Most politicians are not anti-Semitic, or, if they are, they take care to avoid saying so. However, in 1984, after Bill Clinton unexpectedly lost his bid for a 1974 Arkansas congressional seat, witnesses claimed his wife Hillary yelped at Paul Fray, the campaign manager, ‘You fucking Jew bastard’ (Oppenheimer 2000). Fray, his wife Mary Lee and another campaign worker, Neill McDonald all confirmed the incident, and Fray told a newspaper:

I was a little defensive about it. I looked to the floor thinking ‘How do I respond?’ I didn’t mind being called a son-of-a-bitch, but when it came to attacking my culture, that’s a whole another ballgame. You’ve got to understand it was the heat of the moment. We knew we had lost. It was a case of people lashing out at one another and it just got to that point.

Kyle 2016

Hillary Clinton denied the accusation. ‘I have never said anything like that, ever. I have in the past certainly, you know maybe, called somebody a name. But I have never used an ethnic, racial, anti-Semitic, bigoted, discriminatory, prejudiced accusation against anybody. I’ve never done it. I’ve never thought it.’ Former President Bill Clinton said, ‘I was there on election night in 1974 and the charge is simply not true. She might have called him a bastard, I wouldn’t rule that out. She’s never claimed that she was pure on profanity. But I’ve never heard her tell a joke with an ethnic connotation. She’s so fanatic about it. It’s not in her’ (Kyle 2016).

17.6.3 Trump versus Mexico

During a fraud trial against Trump University presided over by US District Court Judge Gonzalo Curiel, Donald Trump claimed, ‘I’ve been treated very unfairly by this judge. Now, this judge is of Mexican heritage. I’m building a wall, OK? I’m building a wall’ (Smith 2016). Trump was referring to his plan that, when elected to the Presidency, he would build a wall between Mexico and America, and make Mexico pay for it. Incidentally, the judge was born in Indiana, and was a US citizen.

Trump, at least in public, appears to hold Mexicans in low regard, as evidenced by his campaign claims, having stated, ‘When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re sending people that have lots of problems … they’re bringing drugs, they’re bringing crime. They’re rapists’ (Schwartz 2015). Furthermore, he claimed:

The worst elements in Mexico are being pushed into the United States by the Mexican government. The largest suppliers of heroin, cocaine, and other illicit drugs are (p. 323) Mexican cartels that arrange to have Mexican immigrants trying to cross the borders and smuggle in the drugs. The Border Patrol knows this. Likewise, tremendous infectious disease is pouring across the border. The United States has become a dumping ground for Mexico and, in fact, for many other parts of the world … The Mexican Government is forcing their most unwanted people into the United States. They are, in many cases, criminals, drug dealers, rapists, etc.

Walker 2015

17.6.4 A war on women

Turning to the taboo of sexism, according to the anti-Clinton book American Evita, the aforementioned Hillary would refer to her husband’s paramours, and some Arkansans as, ‘Bimbos, Sluts, Trailer Trash, Rednecks, and Shit Kickers’ (Andersen 2004: 139). Of Bill’s disgruntled lovers, she is further claimed to have opined ‘[t]hose women are all trash. Nobody’s going to believe them’ (Stone and Morrow 2015).

Donald Trump has said more than a few questionable things about women. One of the most notable of these, although later claimed to have been said in jest, was about how he would react if his daughter Ivanka posed for Playboy Magazine. ‘I don’t think Ivanka would do that, although she does have a very nice figure. I’ve said if Ivanka weren’t my daughter, perhaps I’d be dating her’ (Evon 2015). It is commonly asserted that he said, ‘Women: You have to treat them like shit’ but no credible source can be found for this. However, in a 1991 interview with Esquire he claimed, ‘You know, it really doesn’t matter what [the media] write as long as you’ve got a young and beautiful piece of ass’ (Rappeport 2016).

Trump has been unafraid to use appearance to criticize opponents such as Republican Presidential candidate, Carly Fiorina, exclaiming, ‘Look at that face! Would anyone vote for that? Can you imagine that, the face of our next president I mean, she’s a woman, and I’m not supposed to say bad things, but really, folks, come on. Are we serious?’ (Lawler 2015).

Trump’s staff retweeted the misogynistic comment of a student from Texas regarding his Democratic opponent during the 2016 Presidential race. The student wrote, ‘If Hillary Clinton can’t satisfy her husband what makes her think she can satisfy America?’ The tweet was deleted, but not until his 2.8 million followers had lodged it firmly in the collective mind (Martosko 2015). There may have been merit to the claim, as Hillary Clinton is alleged to have shouted at Bill over his unfaithfulness ‘I need to be fucked more than twice a year’ (Flegon 1996: 170).

Mr Trump also criticized performer Bette Midler with either a strong sense of irony or a startlingly skewed perception of his own image. ‘While @Bette Midler is an extremely unattractive woman, I refuse to say that because I always insist on being politically correct’ (Trump 2012).

Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi was at least able to make a joke about his sexual behaviour, claiming, ‘When asked if they would like to have sex with me, 30 (p. 324) per cent of women said, “Yes”, while the other 70 per cent replied, “What, again?” ’ (Day 2015).

The media have played no small role in breaking the taboo of sexism when referring to politicians. On 20 September 2010, radio producer Bill Cooksey of WRKO-AM radio, Boston earned himself a place in the Sexism Hall of Fame by saying of Karyn Polito, the Republican candidate for State Treasurer in Massachusetts, ‘I think she’s hot … She’s tiny, she’s short. She’s got a banging little body on her. Facial-wise, I give her about a seven. Body-wise, I give her about an eight-and-a-half. Tight, little butt. I endorse Karyn Polito’ (Ms. Foundation for Women 2010).

When contemplating the possibility of Sonia Sotomayor becoming a Justice, G. Gordon Liddy offered, ‘Let’s hope that the key conferences aren’t when she’s menstruating or something, or just before she’s going to menstruate. That would really be bad. Lord knows what we would get then’ (Tumulty 2009). Talk show host Rush Limbaugh added ‘I think I’m going to send Sotomayor, and her club, a bunch of vacuum cleaners to help them clean up after their meetings’ (Williams 2015).

During a Glen Beck program aired on radio across America on 8 October 2009, he commented on the appearance of former Secretary of State, Madelaine Albright, ‘Good heavens! I’m sorry I just looked up at Madeleine Albright and she’s … No, normally it burns our eyes out … and look at the neck skin on her … does she kind of look like a turkey? … Look at her eyes and her nose. She looks like a turkey’ (Bennett 2009).

Back on the campaign trail, during her first stump speech, the meeting chairman somehow thought it appropriate to ask Congressional candidate Siobhan ‘Sam’ Bennett, ‘Sam, I want to ask a question all the men in this room have been dying to ask you: Just what are your measurements?’ (Marty 2010). Clearly, politics still has a long way to go in its treatment of women.

17.7 Advertising and profanity

Swearing in advertisements is made more complex when campaigns are used multinationally. What is acceptable not only varies by psychographic, but by region. For example, condom ads that are legal in the United States can still be rejected by broadcasters, while in India, a deodorant campaign featured flirting, and was judged ‘indecent, vulgar, and suggestive’ by local authorities.

17.7.1 Advertising standards

There are rules and codes that set out what is and is not acceptable, but there are always grey areas. The Australian Association of National Advertisers Code of Ethics claims that its purpose ‘is to ensure that advertisements and other forms of marketing communications are legal, decent, honest, and truthful and that they have been prepared with a (p. 325) sense of obligation to the consumer and society and a sense of fairness and responsibility to competitors.’ The code prohibits discrimination on the grounds of ‘race, ethnicity, nationality, gender, age, sexual preference, religion, disability, mental illness, or political belief.’ Additionally, Section 2.5 states that ‘Strong or obscene language shall be avoided’ (Australian Association of National Advertisers 2012).

Similar codes apply in most countries, although there are regional differences that need careful consideration when planning multimarket campaigns. For example, the Advertising Standards Authority Ltd/Committees of Advertising Practice, the advertising watchdog in the United Kingdom, has set out clear guidelines about the acceptability of swearing. They allow soft swearing, e.g. shag, piss, slag, and bloody, when targeted appropriately, but this becomes more complex in context. A pot noodle campaign using the slogan ‘The slag of all snacks’ was acceptable, but when the line was refreshed to ‘Hurt me you slag’ it was banned due to an allusion to sexual violence.

There are four types of swearing: Expletive: used to articulate emotion, Abusive: directed towards others and often derogatory, Auxiliary: used in and as regular speech, and Humorous: which is similar to expletive but not derogatory (Andersson and Trudgill 1991). Vulgar language that’s humorous is acceptable in many situations, but if it is offensive it isn’t. Fuck has been approved in at least one case, but cunt has not.

Australia’s Advertising Standards Board publish a list of swearwords used, and complaints upheld by year (Table 17.1).

17.7.2 The brand loophole

Interestingly, despite strict control of language in discourse, different rules apply to brand names. In 1997 retailers French Connection adopted the brand name ‘fcuk’ claiming it to be an acronym for French Connection United Kingdom. They subsequently produced clothing with slogans such as ‘fcuk this’, ‘hot as fcuk’, ‘mile high fcuk’, ‘fcuk me’, which tends to make their justification appear opportunistic and highly questionable.

Media selection can also make a difference. Urban Outfitters successfully defended their use of ‘Effin’, ‘***king’, and ‘fukkit’ in a marketing email. The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA, UK) determined that while these were obviously derived from swearwords, and could thus offend, the email was unlikely to upset its particular recipients. Another interesting case was the ASA’s ruling on a billboard encouraging tourism to Australia, using the phrase ‘Where the bloody hell are you?’ The watchdog explained that soft swearing would sometimes be acceptable in newspapers or more targeted media, but should not be allowed on billboards because children could see it (Butcher and Dickson 2015).

It is not necessary to swear to have an advertisement banned: double entendres can be equally difficult. Complaints against furniture retailer, Sofa King saying ‘Sofa King. Our prices are Sofa King Low,’ and the Gas Showroom’s ‘Let the Gas Showroom stick something warm in your hearth hole’ were both upheld. (p. 326)

Table 17.1 Profanities upheld and dismissed by year





Damn. (Ardarth cigarettes)


Sh*t (Wheels Mag)


‘Stick it up your landlord’ (Logan Units Display Homes)


Christ (Dad and Dave Security Doors)

Nuts (Mr. Specs)


Crap (Jeans Extra)


Bloody (Power Brewing)


Bugger (Toyota)


Shit scared (Autobarn Bundaberg)


Bum (Kimberly-Clark Aust Pty Ltd)


Piss (ChaosMusic Ltd)


Wankers (J Jackson)


Kick Arse (Rebel Sport Ltd)


Sweet FA (Virgin Mobile Aust Pty Ltd)


F### (beeped out) (Mitsubishi Motors Australia Ltd)


Dickhead (NSW Premier’s Department)


Bitch (Sara Lee Household & Body Care Aust)


Crap (Virgin Mobile)


Bastard (Jim Beam)


Fucked (Geoff Walsh Engine Parts Pty Ltd)


Freakn’ (Vodafone Network Pty Ltd)


WTF (Nova 106.9)


Fuck (Mistletone Enterprises)

F*ck (Sydney Festival)


Vagina (Johnson & Johnson Pacific Pty Ltd)


OMFG Just Group Ltd

Boobs (Bonds Industries Ltd)


C-Bomb (C-Bomb hot sauce)

The codes don’t allow the use of asterisks as a technical circumvention of swearing or taboo. People understand that F*ck means Fuck, and that ‘the N Word’ means nigger, and making the reader complicit in the completion of the offensive word doesn’t avoid responsibility. As an example, a complaint against a club promoting a ‘Valentine’s F*ck Fest’ was upheld (O’Reilly 2014).

The airline Virgin adopted similar tactics to promote their Upper Class Lounge with the headline ‘Sit, shower, shave.’ They also ran a promotion for trips to Phuket, as did Air Asia, headlined ‘Cheap enough to say, Phuket I’ll go.’ The Advertising Standards Board (p. 327) ruled (amongst other things) that ‘it used the name of a real place and as such the word could not be considered to be obscene.’ And further that ‘using this city’s name was an old joke and one that would not be considered offensive by a reasonable adult.’

17.8 Pushing the envelope: advertising and taboos

The same taboos that bedevil political life are a cause of tension within the advertising industry. Similarly, as times change, attitudes change with them and yesterday’s amusing magazine page is tomorrow’s ammunition for industry vilification. Taboos are generally broken in advertising for two reasons: to normalize a product that can be seen as embarrassing, such as tampons, or to shock, in order to attract attention. Breaking such taboos can result in multiple complaints to the industry watchdog, but are frequently dismissed, because they do not breach a section of the Code.

The social-anthropologist Van Gennep (1904) identified three characteristics of taboos: prohibition, sacredness, and contagion while Freud suggested another distinguishing aspect was emotional ambivalence (Ouidade and Obermiller 2012). While taboos abound, the most common ones tested by advertising involve sex and sexual relationships, racism, and products involved with bodily functions that are deemed to be of an embarrassing or private nature, such as tampons, condoms, and toilet paper.

Taboos can extend to shock advertising which intentionally employs controversial or offensive concepts to sell. Derived from this definition, there are seven types of shock appeal that marketers can use to affect the audience: images that excite disgust, such as gore, references to sexual activity, obscenity, including profanity and racial epithets, distasteful activities such as breaking wind or picking one’s nose, challenging conventions of social decency, showing harm to animals or humans—particularly children—and, finally, making use of religious or spiritual symbols or people inappropriately (Urwin and Venter 2014).

17.8.1 Bodies that matter

Marketing of sanitary pads and tampons was taboo until the 1960s. Indeed women would often get pads in an unmarked box at their pharmacy and embarrassment surrounding product use has proven hard to shift in some parts of the world: in Japan, for example, supermarkets still place tampons and pads in a paper bag at the checkout. However, by the swinging 60s, brands such as Kotex started using full page women’s magazine advertisements, showing stylish women and claiming: ‘Kotex is confidence’. A bunch of red roses in the foreground alluded subtly to menstruation. The body copy of a typical advertisement was informative, but somewhat oblique. ‘You’ll welcome the (p. 328) new Kotex Packaging. They have a much softer covering for greater comfort, pleated ends for a smoother fit, also a new inner shield which provides lasting protection in all 3 absorbencies’ (Green Feminine Hygiene Queen 2014).

Even today, feminine hygiene products typically demonstrate absorbency using unrelated blue liquid on a neutral background. However, UK-based maxi pad company Bodyform broke the taboo. They made a commercial that showed women in sports that caused some bleeding, then cut to the slogan ‘No blood should hold us back.’ It was the first time blood had been mentioned in tampon advertising, and consequently won a coveted Gold Lion advertising award. A broader campaign ‘Red.Fit’ encouraged women to stay active during periods, and recommended various products appropriate for doing so (O’Reilly 2017).

17.8.2 Sex sells

Sex, the near neighbour of—and frequent cohabitant with—sexism, has always been a mainstay of advertising. Researchers Gallup and Robinson, report that after more than half a century, it has found the use of sex to be a successful technique for advertising, ‘although one of the more dangerous for the advertiser. Weighted down with taboos and volatile attitudes, sex is a Code Red advertising technique … handle with care … seller beware; all of which makes it even more intriguing.’ This research has led to the popular idea that ‘sex sells’ (Streitmatter 2004).

One of the earliest known uses of sex in advertising was Pearl Tobacco depicting a nude woman on their packaging in 1871. Soap quickly followed, with what appears to have been the first product to blatantly sell using sex. In 1915, Woodbury’s Facial Soap produced what was then regarded as a shocking advertisement, showing a man in evening dress lovingly embracing a woman with the headline, ‘A skin you love to touch.’ Interestingly, the advertisement was penned by a female copywriter. In 1916 the advertisement was refreshed with the man seemingly kissing her neck. In the 1930s, Woodbury’s changed to a naked model (Bathe all your skin for beauty in the ‘filtered sunshine’ of Woodbury’s—gentle lather) and the following decade they upgraded their famous embracing couple, but made them far more passionate, showing them kissing, with the tagline ‘TNT for two!’

Van Heusen ran a magazine advertisement in 1951 headed ‘Show her it’s a man’s world’ with an illustration of a man, in shirt and tie, being served breakfast in bed, by a beautiful woman in a dressing gown who kneels and offers a breakfast tray in what appears to be grateful submission.

Mr Leggs Dacron slacks showed their product on the legs of a man with one foot on the head of an attractive woman, the rest of whom is a tiger skin rug, claiming: ‘It’s nice to have a girl around the house.’ Tipalet featured a man smoking and breathing that smoke into the face and open mouth of a sexy woman in a revealing top. ‘Blow in her face and she’ll follow you anywhere,’ it claimed, revelling in the wordplay of fellatio.

(p. 329) Volkswagen ran a much-lauded campaign, including one full page advertisement showing their car with a badly dented front panel and smashed headlight. The headline read, ‘Sooner or later, your wife will drive home one of the best reasons for owing a Volkswagen.’ The body copy continued even more misogynistically, ‘Women are soft and gentle, but they hit things. If your wife hits something in a Volkswagen, it doesn’t hurt you very much. VW parts are easy to replace. And cheap … So when your wife goes window shopping in a Volkswagen, don’t worry. You can conveniently replace anything she uses to stop the car. Even the brakes.’

Fiat ran a billboard for the 127 Palio with a picture of their car and the copy, ‘If it were a lady, it would get its bottom pinched,’ causing a graffitist to respond, ‘If this lady were a car, she’d run you down.’

The advertising watchdog has reported on this phenomenon at length, with a sample below of the types of complaints received and acted upon in 1993, following legislative changes. They included ads where a German Shepherd was considered a ‘man’s dog’ as it could rip a woman’s jeans off with its teeth (Eagle Bitter), and a woman in underwear being sawn in half by a magician, but still ‘looking good’ (Berlei), which were both dismissed by the Advertising Standards Council (ASC). There was also a lot of media attention for ads which said that women wouldn’t show up to work because of a sale (Katies), which compared a pregnant woman to a car ‘there’s nowhere more comfortable than inside a wide body’ (Toyota), and which showed a man with his hand down a woman’s top ‘when you see this model in the flesh, you will express your desire for it on the spot’ (Fairfax & Roberts). All of these complaints were upheld by the ASC for demeaning the dignity of women (Advertising Standards Bureau 2015: 38).

Bespoke suit maker Duncan Quinn is one brand that has been keeping the tradition of sexism alive. A 2008 advertisement depicts a woman in bra and panties, bleeding from the head, sprawled across the bonnet of a car, strangled by the tie of a dominant, confident besuited man who overlooks the scene. No headline was deemed necessary, just the brand name.

Airlines have seemingly always used sex as a tool to lure their male-dominated market. A typical advertisement for Eastern Airlines, showed a bevy of attractive women who had failed to be selected to become stewardesses. It read as follows:

Presenting the Losers. Pretty good, aren’t they? And they’re probably good enough to get a job practically anywhere they want. But not as Eastern Airlines stewardesses. We pass around up to 19 girls, before we get one that qualifies. If looks were everything it wouldn’t be so tough. Sure, we want her to be pretty … don’t you? That’s why we look at her face, her make-up, her complexion, her figure, her weight, her legs, her grooming, her nails and her hair. But we don’t stop there. We talk. And we listen. We listen to her voice, her speech. We judge her personality, her maturity. Her intentions, her enthusiasm, resiliency, and her stamina. We don’t want a stewardess to be impatient with a question you may have, or careless in serving your dinner, or unconcerned about your needs. So we try to eliminate these problems by taking a lot more time and passing up a lot more girls. It may make our job a lot harder, but it makes your flying a lot easier.

Mashon 2015

(p. 330) Braniff went far further, with both television and press advertising showing one of their hostesses stripping to reveal fresh layers of clothing as the flight progressed. The commercial was accompanied by a bump and grind music track. The ‘Air Strip’ as it was known, was actually how attendants do change their clothes on board.

Sex and alcohol are natural bedmates. A typical example is an advertisement for the 6% alcohol brand, ‘four’. It shows a barmaid with pendulous breasts exposed through a plunging neck top serving two cans of the drink, with the headline: ‘Now available legally’ and a less than subtle second line ‘nice cans.’

Fashion has always used sex to sell. American Apparel has been a particularly blatant exemplar, frequently using extremely young girls with their legs spread, or in other overtly sexual poses. According to Business Insider, American Apparel brand founder, Don Charney, ‘was forced out of the company after several employees lodged sexual harassment allegations against him. American Apparel previously settled cases with four models who claimed they had been harassed or sexually assaulted by Charney. The company paid a sum of $US3.4 million to two models, according to court papers filed by the company. The other settlements were confidential’ (Taylor 2017).

In 2014 a commercial for Ashley Madison, encouraging people to organize affairs online became the most complained about commercial in Australia. The complaint was dismissed by the Board because it didn’t breach a code, it merely offended the sensibilities of some. Similarly, in Britain, LoveHoney, a sex toy retailer, ran commercials in the morning television slot, breaking a longstanding taboo. No product was shown—that would be a breach of rules specifying that they should not be, nor was overt sex shown. Instead, merely a fully dressed couple was depicted kissing fervently, before saying ‘Have a good day at work’ (O’Reilly 2017).

17.8.3 Gender difference

Homosexuality and lesbianism were long-standing taboos, but with increasing acceptance in much of the world, brands are now targeting this oft high-spending group, and the taboo is evaporating. Some advertisements have been stiff with homoeroticism for a very long time. One early example coming from Ivory Soap in 1910. It featured an illustration of a group of naked—or practically naked—sailors bathing on a ship, while a man in a sailor’s cap hoses them down.

Some deeply conservative groups target outrage towards companies with advertising that simply recognizes homosexuality is perfectly normal. J. C. Penny is a department store chain with more than 1000 outlets, largely set in suburban shopping malls across the USA and Puerto Rico. They are strong corporate supporters of gay inclusivity. In 2011 they engaged lesbian talk show host Ellen DeGeneres as spokesperson, and showed a lesbian couple with wedding rings in their Mother’s Day catalogue. Their Father’s Day ad featured a same sex couple hugging their children. The advertisements were met with fierce opposition from One Million Moms, who actively oppose homosexuality claiming, ‘We must remain diligent and stand up for biblical values and truth. Scripture (p. 331) says multiple times that homosexuality is wrong and god will not tolerate this sinful nature’ (Ziraldo 2013). The group is noted for extreme rhetoric, however. In 2015, One Million Moms had to repudiate the claims of a former director that black people ‘rut like rabbits’; that the First Amendment applies only to Christians; that Hispanics are ‘socialists by nature’ and come to the US to ‘plunder’ the country; that Hillary Clinton is lesbian, and that ‘Homosexuality gave us Adolf Hitler, and homosexuals in the military gave us the Brown Shirts, the Nazi war machine, and six million dead Jews’ (Mantyla 2015).

The recent legalization of same-sex marriage in many countries and states has caused a boom in lavish weddings, and marketers have been quick to cash in. Luxury jewellery brand Tiffany has, for example, run ads showing two men sitting on front steps, with the headline ‘Will you?’

As part of a 2015 commercial, the Unilever brand, Lynx, included one man kissing another in a Casablanca-style clip. The scene was not sensationalized, or an attempt to scandalize as it might have been a few years ago. However, dozens of people complained to The Advertising Standards Board. Unilever acknowledged the concerns expressed by those consumers but submitted that ‘a scene depicting two men kissing each other on the lips in a non-sexual way could be regarded as discriminating against or vilifying consumers with religious beliefs in a manner contrary to the code. Those consumers are not being prejudiced or treated unjustly or unfairly by the imagery in the kiss scene.’ The watchdog dismissed the complaints, noting that the kiss was ‘fleeting’ and ‘not particularly passionate and does not then lead to any further kissing or intimacy’ (Keating 2015).

17.8.4 Racist imagery

Racism is a relatively recent taboo that was once commonplace in advertising, as a woodcut poster from the 1866 Pennsylvania gubernatorial race shows. Candidate Hiester Clymer ran on a white supremacy platform, and is visually represented by the face of a clean, well dressed white man, while his opponent, James Geary, is represented by a lumpen, curly-haired thick-lipped African American. Under each head is a statement. ‘Clymer’s platform is for the white man’ and ‘Geary’s platform is for the negro’ (

In an advertisement from 1899, Pears borrowed from a Rudyard Kipling poem, with the copy stating; ‘the first step towards lightening the white man’s burden is through teaching the virtues of cleanliness’. By the 1920s, the same company was running advertisements demonstrating the cleansing power of their product by showing a white child scrubbing a black one in a bath, and the latter miraculously turning white. Similarly, Chlorinol soda bleaching advertised showing three black children on a boat made of a carton, one now inexplicably white ‘We are going to use Chlorinol and be like de white nigger,’ reads the sail, as the remaining black boys hold up cartons of the product.

(p. 332) As late as 1952, an advertisement for Van Heusen shirts found casual racism amusing. The headline read ‘4 out of 5 men want Oxfords … in these new Van Heusen styles.’ while the visual showed four good looking white men in said shirts, together with a topless painted black man, replete with a necklace of animal teeth and a bone through his hair (Murano 2009).

While overt racism has become rare in modern advertising, the Unilever brand Dove VisibleCare Creme Body Wash faced such accusations in 2011. Their ‘before and after’ magazine advertisement shows the transition from pre- to post use. The ‘before’ woman is black, the woman in the middle appears to be Latina and the ‘after, is a white blonde. The headline is, ‘Visibly more beautiful skin from the most unexpected of places—your shower.’ Dove defended the advertisement, saying, ‘The ad is intended to illustrate the benefits of using Dove VisibleCare Body Wash, by making skin visibly more beautiful in just one week.’ All three women are intended to demonstrate the ‘after’ product benefit. We do not condone any activity or imagery that intentionally insults any audience’ (Daily Mail Reporter 2011). The resulting controversy seems not to have changed their strategy, however. While this chapter was being written, Dove released yet another tone-deaf advertisement, again for their body wash, but this time showing a black woman removing a brown sweater and transforming into a white woman in a white top (Astor 2017). One advertisement of this sort might be a careless accident, but two mean that it is tempting to think that this is a deliberate ploy to gain attention by the brand.

17.9 Conclusion

As we look at taboos in the mouths of politicians and in advertising, we see their adoption fluctuates, but as one evaporates another tends to emerge. While issues such as menstruation and homosexuality are no longer considered embarrassing or impolite, others like racialism and sexism have become more taboo.

Bad language tells a different story and a trend of ever-increasing acceptance is evident. Words that were once considered offensive, such as damn, or bloody, raise few eyebrows now. Mid-level swearing, such as shit and bugger is becoming more palatable, while the most offensive words fuck and cunt—once unthinkably vulgar—are being used on brands and in Parliament.

The examples further illustrate that clear distinctions can be drawn between the active usage of profanity and the deployment of taboos in politics and advertising. Whilst there are similarities, ultimately the former has the politician as both its primary client and product, whilst the latter industry has a detachment from the end result. Advertising copywriters may—and usually do—indulge in both profane and taboo-breaking language privately without fear that it will damage the brands for which they work. Politicians, on the other hand, must weigh every word if they want to remain in office.

(p. 333) The manipulation of language and taboos is complex, with profanity sometimes being an appropriate choice in a particular situation or for a curated public persona, and the challenging of taboos can be understood as a stance to appeal to a given psychographic. However, missteps in both cases can lead to disaster.

The larger question this raises is what happens when we run out of words we find offensive? Cunt remains the furthest outpost of profanity, but given the history of its vulgar compatriots, it is reasonable to assume that within two decades it will be far more acceptable.

If no verbal extreme is available to shock, is an increase in physical rebuttal inevitable, or must creative minds invent yet more confronting swearing? We’re fucked if we know.


The authors would like to extend their gratitude to Neil Addison, Associate Professor at Tokyo Woman’s Christian University, for his valuable comments on an earlier draft of this chapter.