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Are Curse Words Cursed or Do They Drive Sales?

Are Curse Words Cursed or Do They Drive Sales? An Exploration of Naughty Book Titles and Products

I’m sure you’ve noticed the abundance of “dirty” words in book titles, company names, and products. However, the savvy business question is this: does it boost sales?

In book circles, potty-mouthed titles abound:

  1. Kicking Financial Ass: Punch Debt in the Face, Invest for the Future, and Retire Early!

  2. The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck

  3. SH*T Happens and Get Over It

  4. Crap: How to Deal with Annoying Teacher, Bosses, Backstabbers, and Other Stuff that Stinks

  5. Zen as F*ck

  6. Mother F*cking Girl Power

  7. Thug Kitchen: Eat Like You Give a​ F*ck

  8. Thug Kitchen: “For Social Mother-F**ers

In the Thug Kitchen series, when the tagline was changed for certain markets to Thug Kitchen: Eat Clean, Party Hard, sales declined vs. the original title with the dreaded “f” word.

Jen Sincero’s series of Badass books (You Are a Badass, You are a Badass at Making Money, You are a Badass Every Day) has been a monster hit with over 190 weeks on the New York Time’s bestseller list and has sold millions of copies. However, it wasn’t a runaway sales train. The first book was published in 2013 and took three years before hitting the “must read” list.

The Howard Stern “Shock Factor”

The success of curse words in titles can be traced to the early success of Justin Halpern’s Sh*t My Dad Says in 2010. His Twitter feed was the definition of viral marketing with followers growing exponentially; the author’s sharp wit and “no holds barred” attitude eventually captured CBS’s attention which purchased his Twitter feed and created a TV show. Although the TV show bombed, it spawned the success of his similarly shock-titled book series including More Sh*t My Dad Says and I Suck at Girls.

Jeff Wheeland, author of There’s More to Life than a Sh*tty Cubicle explains, “the use of “sh*tty” was a deliberate strategy” despite the huge pushback he received. He believed any other title didn’t do justice to his humor or provide the pushback to make swearing more acceptable.

The Dark and Downside of Marketing

Sarah Knight whose two bestsellers include: “Get Your S*hit Together” and “The Life-Changing Magic of Not Giving a F*ck,”confided to the Wall Street Journal that censors were more strict in the United States than in England, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. In these other English-speaking countries, she never edited her titles. In American markets, she always changed her offends words to “fudge” and “hoot” respectively.

From in-store promotion to on-line advertising, curse titles have a tough road. Facebook specifically spells out in its policies that ads must not “contain profanity including profanity that is partially obscured by asterisks or symbols.” Even book reviewers must navigate these dangerous waters with different publications holding steadfast to different guidelines. The New York Times, for example, rarely publishes profanity according to its Manual of Style. The Wall St. Journal uses a profanity bar instead of asterisks (example Sh*t vs. Sh_t.)

In-store tables loaded with curse-word books might offend customers and children. Bookstore managers have taken to keeping this type of titles behind the customer hindering impulse purchases.

Product Names and Promotions Flirting with Profanity

The Big Ass Fan company earned massive press coverage a few years ago when it changed its name from HVLS Fan Company. It has consistently poked fun at its own name, allowed customers to comment, but defended its donkey-themed moniker. In terms of sales, the company boasts a year-over-year increase of at least 30% since its inception in 1999.

Bitchin’ Sauce, based in Carlsbad, California, started small with distribution via farmer’s markets. Today, it’s available at more than 6500 retailers including Costco. Starr Edwards, founder of the brand, states that the name is huge asset: ““People who are not vegan or gluten-free but are just like, ‘That’s hilarious. That says “bitchin’”…’” she said. “We’re able to appeal to a much larger crowd, and I think that’s really fun.” BTW, the product is delish!

Other brands skirt profanity using puns such as No Sheet, It’s Silk-Night Golden Silk Sheet Mask or ShipStation’s tagline of “Get Ship Done.” It appears that these puns that are more likely to roll eyeballs than bring in sales.

The Bottom Line

Psychologists see using forbidden words as demonstrating courage, opinion, and rebellion. The irony, however, is that as the current pace of curse-driven books and products multiply, it is no longer differentiated. For the time being, however, cursed words are bringing in the business.

Navigate Your Personal Brand

A speaker friend just asked me if she should put the word “b*tch” in her title. My answer was a definitive NO! Meeting planners are notorious “play it safe” type of businesspeople and the risk of offending an audience are too great. Most importantly, however, it’s a violation of her personal brand; she doesn’t speak like that so her title shouldn’t represent a different side of her.

The key question for you is: does it fit your personal brand? If so, go for it! Otherwise, stick to the safety zone.

I welcome your comments.


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