Brands are more and more frequently using taboo words in their communication. For example, RXBAR launched in 2018 the “No B.S.” campaign, and the brand Meatless Farm launched the “That’s a M… F… Burger” campaign. However, not much is known on how taboo words affect consumers. Here we see how consumers react to taboo words (read, “curse words”) and how marketers can use them for good.


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What are taboo words

In any society, there are social norms against certain words. These words can include swear words or curse words, or other words that are not considered socially accepted (e.g., the “urban” words for human genitals). All the words that have social norms against their use are considered taboo words. Despite these words encompass a few categories, people generally use them in the daily language for swearing and cursing.

Consequences of taboo words

Taboo words are high in perceived offensiveness. Many studies show that, in comparison to non-taboo words, taboo words are rated as more offensive. The high offensiveness of taboo words is a consequence of the breaking of the social norm, and it depends on the context where this norm has been broken. For example, it depends on the relation between the two people communicating: people use more taboo words with friends and less with strangers, and more in casual environments than in formal environments. A study showed that people rated taboo words as more offensive when they were answering in the dean’s office, than in a parking lot. Therefore, perceived offensiveness depends on how much the social norm has been broken during the conversation.

Taboo words are also high in arousal, especially negatively valenced arousal. Negative arousal is a common and primitive state. It can be activated by threats and immediate dangers (e.g., imagine a primitive man seeing a lion). Taboo words, therefore, negatively “activate” people and make them more elated and attentive.

Taboo words grab attention. Since taboo words break social norms, they are also more attention-grabbing than non-taboo words. This is a consequence of the negative arousal of the previous point.


How people use taboo words

Despite taboo words are usually rated higher in perceived offensiveness, in real life they are rarely used to offend others, and people rarely perceive them as offensive in natural conversations. This is because people normally use words that are appropriate for each social situation, and taboo words may be appropriate (i.e., low in offensiveness) in informal, intimate, or casual conversations. In these situations, the norm against their use is generally low, and their use is more appropriate.

People use taboo words very frequently in natural conversation. Studies that recorded all the words used by people in daily conversation, estimated that they are between 0.3% and 0.5% of the spoken words of English speakers (in comparison, first-person plural pronouns are just 1.0% of spoken words). This finding is against the conservative belief that taboo words are rarely used, or that they are used just by few “unpolite” people. It is also unlikely that taboo words are principally used to offend other people. It is more likely that people use taboo words so frequently just for expressive purposes, to reinforce an emotional state (e.g., “this is f… good!”).

Taboo words help people to better express their feelings. It has been shown that taboo words have unique expressive properties, meaning that they can convey unique emotional states of negative arousal. The expressive potential depends on the social norm people are breaking with the use of taboo words. When people use a taboo word, they convey that they are in a so elated space that they do not care about the social norm. For example, a consumer, after consuming a product, can say “this is f… good!”, expressing that the quality of the product is so high, that makes them forget the social norm against taboo words. in line with this pragmatic process, a recent study showed that politicians using taboo words are perceived to be more trustworthy: if a politician uses taboo words, people attribute the norm-breaking to a special attachment of the politician to the topic. Politicians are so fired up by the topic that they forget the norms of “appropriate” behavior when speaking. Since the politician transmits this image of high effort and high emotionality toward a topic, they are perceived as more genuine and trustworthy.


Taboo words and consumers

Marketers have frequently used taboo words to grab attention and to convey an urban, casual, anti-formal image. However, psychological research suggests that there are also more subtle consequences for consumers.

Taboo words and coolness. Taboo words break social norms, inducing consumers to make assumptions about the brand. If a speaker breaks a social norm, they may convey that they do not care about social conventions, increasing their perceived coolness. Coolness, in fact, can be defined as the appropriate transgression of social norms to achieve a person’s positive objective. Coolness is an important factor for many brands, and this may explain why “cool” brands started using these words. However, taboo words are not enough to create coolness and we recommend looking at our post on coolness to see how marketers can use taboo words in a coolness strategy.

Taboo words and censure. Let’s not forget that there are social norms against the use of taboo words, and that that they are generally more offensive than non-taboo words. Society does not generally like taboo words, and it put in place informal (i.e., self-censure) and formal (e.g., laws, regulations) norms against their use. For example, in the US there are adult advisory labels to songs that contain taboo words, movies are rated for the presence of taboo words (“strong language”), and radios are forbidden to transmit songs with taboo words during certain hours of the day.

Therefore, taboo words can create problems of formal and informal censure, and marketers should be very careful in using them. For example, taboo words decrease the success of movies, and it is not clear whether they help the success of songs or the sharing of marketing messages. It is possible to argue that taboo words would decrease the sharing of a marketing message because they decrease the appropriateness of the sharing in many situations, restricting the overall word of mouth around the brand.

What marketers can do with taboo words:

  • Use taboo words to express coolness. Use taboo words to achieve a cool image, show that your brand cares so much about something, that they even use taboo words.
  • Use taboo words to express unique emotional states. Taboo words can be a way to express the arousal state of a brand for a topic or cause. Use it with caution to enforce your effort toward that cause.
  • Use taboo words with much caution because of offensiveness. Taboo words can be perceived as offensive and decrease the liking of the brand. Use them in “appropriate” situations.
  • Use taboo words with much caution because of formal and informal censure. There are implicit and formal forms of censure that can hinder the success of your campaign with taboo words. Be sure that you are not stepping on the wrong foot legally-wise and sensibility-wise.



Taboo words make you more resistant to pain. Many studies showed that people can hold a hand on freezing water for a longer time if they are asked to sweat out loud. The emotional expression of their negative arousal state helped them releasing through communication their emotions. This decreased the perceived intensity of the pain and increased their resistance toward the pain.


Monthly Consumer Discoveries is a Monthly newsletter that brings you the most interesting updates in consumer behavior research.




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Lafreniere, K. C., & Moore, S. G. (2018). The Power of Pottymouth in Word-Of-Mouth. ACR North American Advances.




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