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How To Insult Your Audience And Get Away With It

oiyouEveryone working in a creative industry knows the feeling at some time… the client who doesn’t get it; or if they do – wants it done their way no matter what.  Whose idea of partnership it seems is to be deliberately obstructive to prove a point; who will not relinquish any semblance of control to the ultimate detriment of the project.  So much so that you wonder why your expertise has been called upon in the first place.  The anger is there bubbling under but you consider you’re a professional and swallow your pride or the patronising attitude directed at you and get on with the job.

However, consider a scenario far beyond the normal nip and tuck; rewrite or reimagining: or even the last-minute wholesale changes that are part and parcel of the creative process.  What if  a lop-sided give and take transmutes psychologically into something altogether different?   There can’t be a working copywriter who hasn’t wanted to let off a blast of invective at a particularly awkward client but how many would love sometime to actively insult their audience and get away with it?

Could any perception of a professional insult ever fuel/instigate an antagonistic approach toward  the target of your copy?  Or is it a form of professional suicide?  Can you insult your audience and get away with it?  Would you even want to if you could?  What would be acceptable?  Is once fine – to be portrayed as a creative leap of faith on an awkward brief?  To be a serial offender in a group of ads contained in a campaign would certainly be walking a tightrope stylistically.  Or is it possibbuyNowBigle to define yourself as a copywriter by making a career of it?

Having explored every conceivable creative possibility is there any positive outcome to be gained from berating people for profit?  To be abrasive and to the point – for example the it does what it says on the tin strand of marketing  – is more or less a cut through the bull: it identifies the audience as one of us; who recognises a good product without all the fripperies of advertising and plays on this fact – so plain speaking here is not an insult under the terms considered.  Even an outwardly non-controversial approach that seeks to get an audience onside – that is as far away as possible from any concept of insult – can promote complaints to regulators.

So it is a brave/or foolish company that indulges in extreme negative marketing that isn’t well thought out and perfectly targeted.  Under what context would you go down this road?  There is a case to be made that a young audience – specifically if it is done with irreverent humour – will get the approach better than the older consumer.  Insult would probably work better virally and/or to this niche.  If taken too far though does it drive you so far up a negative creative cul-de-sac that there is no way back?

It might not appear good business to insult people to sell a product but for a cause then maybe it is more justifiable.  This is particularly true in the field of issues-led campaigns where the calls to action from charities have been blunted by shock tactics and compassion fatigue over many years.  However, it begs the question that if your audience have no compassion can you really turn a fundamental part of them on and off to respond to a different style of charity impulse?  Beyond this contention there’s also the problems of comprehension or awareness by the target audience beyond the matter of the next few seconds: a fact considerably enhanced by the speed expectations of digital media.  You’ve insulted them – now what to follow up and keep them on message?

It would be naive in the extreme to believe that insulting people has to involve blatant swear words; insult via a subtle or pointed contrast leaves the recognition of insult to the individual’s consciousness and is more powerful and insinuating as a result.

The Go Compare! adverts didn’t set out to insult anyone but they show what can be done when a byword for annoying – with popular talk of insult to intelligence – takes the next step by using a negative perception to advantage in a separate series.  An ad that is so kitsch can become loved and hated at the same time like a guilty pleasure of a song but to specifically try to write and produce an irredeemably bad ad to start with -well, that is a kind of awkward, clunky form of perfection that is perversely a hugely difficult skill.  The same as attempting to write bad poetry or produce a knowing or ironic song.  A copywriter needs to understand and include just enough of the good to define the bad conclusively.  Then you get the international one-size fits all markets with over-dubbed ads that are just plain excruciating… Just For Men anyone?up yours cancer

This is straying somewhat from the core points but nevertheless illustrates the difficulties involved at pitching tone just right.  An even more precarious undertaking with attempts at insult and provocation.  Although not directed specifically at the audience… the recent Up Yours Cancer campaign is an example of a shift from a traditional approach: a relatively easier balancing act as surely everyone can agree on the object of derision keeping the controversy and dissent to a minimum.  It’s also a welcome step outside the box of sadness with its upbeat defiance.  However, once again there were complaints at the style from the offended.

So imagine if a well-known brand whose ‘difficult’ message has been swathed in sensitivity for years were to let rip: for an example – a new poster campaign for Senakot laxative with the following tagline… You’re all full of shit!

Charities and causes in particular are not just getting someone to buy something but to buy into an ideal; an approach: a way of seeing the world or proposing an appeal to a better nature – even if that is cloaked by a thick layer of cynicism and over-exposed to twenty-first century ennui.

We’ve all been targeted by these appeals to our better nature as well as the dry factual approach; the tear jerker; the call to arms and the pointing out of our responsibility for future generations: also the requisite ad trying to combat the notion of compassion fatigue – but where to from there?

With no apologies to the easily insulted here are a few brief scattershot thoughts on how to use this approach for an imaginary African charity – without the use of a safety net, advertising codes to hand or deep consideration…

Let’s begin with the obvious… a series of ads incorporating insulting terms or words set with appropriate visuals.  The choice is necessarily limited and can be employed at varying levels of the explicit.

****! (Insert oath of choice) – That’s what you’d call someone who ignored the obvious – so why do you?

How about an insult once removed to address the usual victim profile?

You lazy fat-arsed western fraud… you carelessly pollute my country, destroy our crops through global warming and deny my children opportunities with your one-side quotas and trade agreements.

It’s a mixed bag of strap lines:

Now you really know what he’s thinking – what about you?

Who’s the ungrateful bastard?

They’re too polite to say so but it doesn’t mean it’s not true.

They would say this if they weren’t too weak to speak.

Contrast ads – with text speak headlines and trivial concerns juxtaposed over scenes of real devastation.  Addressing guilt and the superficiality of western responses of phoning in concern.

OMG!  I’ve broken my nail again…

D’oh!  You forgot the cream in my latte again…


It all scarcely amounts to a mainstream trend – although there is discernible evidence around the edges – but there is a space for brands who want to try to promote products on a different level by appealing to something else in the audience’s psychological make-up – albeit a sort of proactive insult by default or obscuration: anything to get commercial advantage in a jaded world.  To many though this might be a bigger step backwards rather than evidence of any path of progression.  Short-term gain sacrificing long-term credibility.  Nothing more than a concept that should remain the province of the thought processes of a pissed-off creative coming off a bad day.


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