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Your [Choose Your Expletive] Ad Here

Words that once would have had mouths on Madison Avenue washed out with soap are becoming common enough in advertisements that one could wonder if the familiar Wendy’s slogan from 1984, were it being introduced today, might be brought out as “Where’s the [choose your expletive] beef?”

There are two main reasons, experts say, for the increasing frankness of the language in everyday advertising. One reason is that it reflects the increasing frankness of the American vernacular, as evidenced by the swear words that are uttered by characters in television series and that appear on the covers of mainstream magazines.

The other reason for the trend is the greater efforts being made by marketers to appeal to the younger consumers, in their 20s and 30s, who are known as millennials or Generation Y. Because those consumers are generally more accepting of such language than their parents or grandparents, marketers say they believe that including those words will help the ads appeal to the target audience.

For instance, the “creative sweet spot” for a $5 million campaign for a new product — a line of intimate wipes named Fresh and Sexy by Playtex, intended for use before or after sexual activity — is men and women in their late 20s, said Erik Rahner, group marketing director at the Energizer personal care division of Energizer Holdings in Shelton, Conn.

The hope is that the campaign “bonds with our consumer and be fun, lighthearted and playful,” Mr. Rahner said, “yet bold enough to break through the clutter.” So the headlines for the ads are a carnival of carnal puns, featuring slang terms for body parts and the sex act.

A tamer ad was also produced, to meet the standards of media companies that reject the headlines as too provocative. That ad carries the headline “Not keeping it clean always gets you rejected.”

But only a few media outlets turned down the versions with the double entendre, Mr. Rahner said, adding that “at the majority, there was not even a debate” over their acceptability.

Elaine McCormick, a creative director at Grey New York, the agency for the new product, said the inspiration for the cheeky headlines “was that we’re living in a ‘That’s what she said’ world.” Her reference is to the phrase that transforms a prosaic comment into a joke about sex; it is a favorite jape of Michael Scott, the character played by Steve Carell on the sitcom “The Office.”

“It’s the idea of innuendo, that everything is open to interpretation,” said Ms. McCormick, whose agency is part of the Grey Group division of WPP. “I do think people are more accepting, and they want to have fun with an ad.”

That kind of approach is also evident in a new campaign for the Gardein line of meatless food products, which carries the theme “Start a healthy relationship.” The campaign, with a budget estimated at $400,000 to $600,000, offers a twist on terms related to dating that millennials are wont to use: One ad calls the brand “a friend with nutritional benefits” and a second ad asks, “Tired of the meat market?”

That language “is part of the social norm,” said Russell Barnett, vice president for marketing at the Los Angeles office of Garden Protein International, which sells Gardein.

“Talking that way makes it easy to start the conversation” with potential customers, he added, and helps develop an image for the Gardein brand as “approachable.”

At the same time, said Bob Froese, chief executive at the Gardein creative agency, the BrainStorm Group in Toronto, “we want to stay in the boundaries of good taste” because “when you deviate from that, you’re provocative for provocative’s sake.”

“It is a very thin line,” Mr. Froese acknowledged.

Mr. Barnett said the goal is for the campaign to be “playful, which is part of our brand tone.”

“We went through tons and tons of lines” for the ads “to settle in on what feels comfortable and could be tied back to our product and what it stands for,” he added. “The moment we had to explain a line, it was wrong.”

Still, one person’s playfulness may be another’s vulgarity. That is particularly true in categories in which consumers are willing to give marketers more leeway in the tone and language of ads, among them sex-related products, apparel and liquor. Sometimes, license veers off into what is perceived as licentiousness.

For example, a campaign in 2009 for Three Olives, a vodka imported by Proximo, asked consumers a question with a double entendre that implied sexual ecstasy. A subsequent campaign used humor and a new one, with a budget estimated at $20 million, uses an endorsement approach, featuring the British actor Clive Owen.

The new concept is to promote the “distinct and premium position” of the Three Olives brand in the vodka market, said Elwyn Gladstone, senior vice president for marketing at Proximo in Jersey City, by playing up that “it’s imported from England.” The ads call Three Olives “the London vodka.”

As for the past provocative approach, “it is not a thing we have continued with,” Mr. Gladstone said, because “it just didn’t really catch people’s attention.” The new campaign is from an agency in Brooklyn called Dead As We Know It, which did not create the previous two campaigns.

 

Stuart Elliott, The New York Times. January 16, 2013

Copyright © 2013 The New York Times Company. All rights reserved.

 

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