WTF: Some Thoughts on the F-Word in the Ad Industry

Kevin Roberts' Comments on Gender Stood Out for Another Reason

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'Was using that particular word such a good idea?
'Was using that particular word such a good idea?" Credit: iStock

Lost in the very justified uproar over the comments made late last month by Saatchi & Saatchi's Kevin Roberts about gender in the advertising industry was his choice of words -- or, more specifically, his choice of one word. The agency chairman didn't just say the debate about gender was over, he said "the fucking debate is all over." Obviously, the debate wasn't over, though the outcry has most certainly advanced a more level career playing field for women in the advertising industry.

But I wonder about the four-letter word. Any debate about that? Even any notice? Was the F-word necessary to make the point?

Or, did the use of profanity detract from any possible merit or moral authority that might have been accorded the opinion Roberts expressed had there been somewhat less shock and anger and feeling of disrespect on the part of respondents?

And has our culture reached a point where we not only condone, but expect a four-letter word to be used for emphasis, for the making of a slam-dunk comment? More four-letter words used more often? And is this becoming the new normal for our workplace or our society? If so, where to draw the line before feelings of hostile workplace and verbal harassment result in heightened workplace alienation and litigation? So many questions, not all of which are semantic, relating to that darn F-word.

What is there about four-letter words -- and particularly this four-letter word and its varietals -- that make them so attractive and functional to some and so repellant and inappropriate to others? And what guidance, professionally speaking, can we obtain from entities that are key elements of our vocational universe?

The original interview appeared on Business Insider on July 29 and the actual word was spelled out in full. In reporting on the interview, Advertising Age ran the quote verbatim.

However, Roberts' use of a word essentially banned on broadcast television, but ever-present on certain subscription cable channels, was not repeated in The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and other general circulation newspapers in their reporting of the controversy. Why is this? Are the standards in general news reporting different from the standards in our own marketing and communications news media?

The Federal Communications Commission has a very clear and simple guideline when it comes to profane words. According to an FAQ on its website: "What makes material profane? Profane language includes those words that are so highly offensive that their mere utterance in the context presented may, in legal terms, amount to a nuisance. In its Golden Globe Awards Order the FCC warned broadcasters that, depending on the context, it would consider the F-Word and those words (or variants thereof) that are as highly offensive as the F-Word to be profane language that cannot be broadcast between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m."

As for the newspaper industry, there is no federal oversight regarding profanity. Community standards, advertiser and agency sensibilities and editorial decorum set the tone and content.

But the Associated Press AP Stylebook does offer some guidance. Here is an excerpt:

"We do not use obscenities, racial epithets or other offensive slurs in stories unless they are part of direct quotations and there is a compelling reason for them. If a story cannot be told without reference to them, we must first try to find a way to give the reader a sense of what was said without using the specific word or phrase. If a profanity, obscenity or vulgarity is used, the story must be flagged at the top, advising editors to note the contents."

In the PRSA Code of Conduct, I found one slim reference that might pertain to the use of profanity: "Preserve the integrity of the process of communication."

As for the advertising industry, the 4A's Standards of Practice are even more oblique saying "we will not knowingly create advertising that contains: statements, suggestions, or pictures offensive to public decency or minority segments of the population."

And the Institute for Advertising Ethics, part of the American Advertising Federation, also makes no comment on the deportment of advertising professionals or their vocabulary and only in Principle 2 does it state, "Advertising, public relations, and all marketing communications professionals have an obligation to exercise the highest personal ethics in the creation and dissemination of commercial information to consumers."

But this wasn't about the creation of advertising, was it?

Rather it was about the people who work in advertising. And maybe about the way we talk to each other. So I wonder how many others on reading about the Roberts' statement pondered the merits of the F-word's inclusion. Probably not many.

But it caught my eye because, in truth, I use the F-word with some regularity, but not in or at work. Only privately. When I stub my toe or hammer my thumb while hanging a picture. Occasionally my wife overhears, but she is still stuck in "oh sugar" as her exclamation of choice for such moments. For sure, I don't use the "F-bomb" in professional conversation or writing. Nor do I use it in casual conversation except, rarely, in the company of very, very close friends of many, many years who use such words themselves on rare occasions. And certainly never when children are in earshot. For me certain words, "profane words," are personal, near private indulgences, not to be squandered and used in ordinary dialogue, thus rendering them devoid of emotional cathartic value when urgent or message acceptability when credence is what I might be seeking.

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