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The Effects of Profanity in Online Reviews: A Provocative Study

The Effects of Profanity in Online Reviews: A Provocative Study

Sameed Babar Khan and Yiping Li

Journal of Marketing Research Scholarly Insights are produced in partnership with the AMA Doctoral Students SIG – a shared interest network for Marketing PhD students across the world.

Warning: This article contains strong language that some readers may consider offensive.

Have you ever seen swear words in product reviews? How did they make you feel? Although profanity is typically thought to be offensive language that breaks social norms in marketing contexts, the authors of a recent Journal of Marketing Research study discovered that consumers often perceive product reviews with swear words to be more helpful.

This phenomenon occurs because consumers perceive two meanings from swear words:

  1. Strong speakers’ feelings
  2. Strong product attributes

Consumers assume that when the speakers use swear words, they are expressing strong feelings about the product attributes because they are willing to take a risk and break social taboos to express their feelings. Swear words also convey meanings about the product and intensify the product attributes. For instance, in the sentence “this dishwasher is damn quiet,” the profanity describes the subject and indicates a strong product attribute.

Profanity Style Matters

Despite the benefits of profanity, marketers should pay attention to the number of swear words and the way in which they’re used. When there are too many swear words in a review, it actually lessens the strength of the product attribute being discussed because consumers they think the reviewer may be exaggerating or simply prefers to express strong feelings. Additionally, swear words may be presented in different speech styles: uncensored (e.g., fuck), euphemistic (e.g., frick), and censored (e.g., f***). Euphemistic swear words have a similar impact to uncensored swear words. However, censored (vs. uncensored) swear words convey weaker product attitudes and weaker reviewer feelings because the censored swear words sound different and show the suppression of openness.

So, in many situations, profanity can cause reviews to be perceived as more helpful and can lead to an increase in positive attitudes toward the product. However, the offensive nature of swear words might be too much for some. Another limitation is that swear words might not be beneficial in contexts with inherently strong attributes or emotions (e.g., “Skydiving is damn fun!”) because the swear word’s meanings may not offer diagnostic information. Overall, the findings suggest that website moderators may be wise to avoid banning swear words, as they can increase the value of reviews and readers’ attitudes toward the reviewed products.

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The findings suggest that website moderators may be wise to avoid banning swear words, as they can increase the value of reviews and readers’ attitudes toward the reviewed products.

Because of the topic’s prevalence and relevance to multiple contexts, we contacted the authors for further insight into this research.

Q: Swear words are common in our daily life, and most of us experience their effects unconsciously. What inspired you to focus on the effect of swear words?

A: It all started with a conversation among colleagues about the appropriateness of swear words in certain contexts (e.g., a university setting). I started to think about how swear words must do more than just cause offense because they are used so frequently. Swear words conveyed something else, but, at the time, it was not clear what they added to the conversation.

I focused on swearing in word of mouth because I was particularly interested in how consumers use swear words to convey something. What did consumers learn from reading a swear word in a product review? Did the swear word add anything?

Q: This research is about the online word of mouth (WOM) context. Do you think the effect can be extended to other contexts, such as firm advertisements/posts or in-person communications?

A: I think there are many ways that swear words can influence consumers. In our WOM context, we saw that swear words conveyed meaning about the product and the reviewer. However, our model probably would not hold in the context of advertisements. Advertising is typically exaggerated and emotionally intensified, so consumers may not draw the same meaning from swear words. Instead, I would expect that swear words in advertisements exert effects through other pathways (e.g., arousal, shock, attention, interpersonal closeness). It would be important to continue testing these other explanations in new contexts.

Q: This research identified the speaker meaning and the topic meaning as parallel mediators. This dual meaning of a single word is a very novel point. Do you think it’s happening at the conscious level or unconscious level? Are consumers or WOM readers aware of the different meanings of the speaker and topic from the effect of swear words?

A: Great question! In one sense, our model is a cognitive one because of the word of mouth context. Consumers read reviews with the purpose of making inferences about the product and the reviewer. However, they may still be unaware that a single word in a review can change those inferences. Still, multiple swear words in a review may provoke more conscious processing about word choice because it draws so much attention to the reviewer (e.g., Why did they swear so much? Are they prone to strong feelings? Are they exaggerating?).

Q: With swear words often considered taboo, did you encounter any challenges in pursuing this topic?

A: Yes, there were challenges. First, I struggled to justify this idea as the topic of my dissertation. Swear words was a fun topic to discuss with faculty and other PhD students but everyone had different predictions on what would happen. I could not write a proposal without evidence because there wasn’t even enough literature to support my initial predictions of a positive effect.

Second, while the faculty was extremely supportive of this research, we faced some backlash in the wider academic community. For example, some worried that swear words could be used to incite violence, so it would be unethical to work on any research on the topic. The topic alone seemed to polarize conference reviewers, which made it trickier to get our paper accepted to conferences for feedback. Still, this extra scrutiny helped us figure out how to position the paper for wider audiences.

The third challenge is that it was sometimes difficult to discuss the project via email. If the email contained a swear word (e.g., describing the conditions of the independent variable), the email would sometimes get flagged by the email provider and go straight to the junk folder. This was especially the case if I asked for feedback from someone outside my organization. We constantly had to check our junk folder to make sure we didn’t miss an important email.

Q: What were the most surprising findings of this research?

A: That a single word can communicate two points of information simultaneously. I now consider the possibility of both product and reviewer pathways in all my research on word of mouth. I was also surprised that the positive effect of swear words showed up in so many different product categories.

Q: Norms and languages often have significant differences across cultures – do you think this research could be extended in that direction?

A: Yes, I think there are many ways to consider culture in this model. First, people from some cultures may not draw the same meaning from swear words used as degree adverbs. They could make different inferences about the reviewer, particularly if they knew the demographics of the reviewer (e.g., gender, age). Second, there should be differences across cultures in terms of which words are taboo and therefore which swear words influence readers. Third, some cultures may use swear words more than others, which may change the magnitude of the effect in one way or another. I’m sure there’s many more opportunities than the ones I listed here.

Read the Full Study for Complete Details

Read the full article:

Katherine C. Lafreniere, Sarah G. Moore, and Robert J. Fisher (2022), “The Power of Profanity: The Meaning and Impact of Swear Words in Word of Mouth,” Journal of Marketing Research, 59 (5), 908–25. doi:10.1177/00222437221078606

Go to the Journal of Marketing Research

Sameed Babar Khan is a doctoral student in marketing at University of Massachusetts Lowell, USA.

Yiping Li is a doctoral student in marketing at University of Massachusetts Lowell, USA.