The Power of Profanity

The Power of Profanity: The Meaning and Impact of
Swearwords in Word-of-Mouth

Research Summary:

Swearing can violate norms and thereby offend consumers. Yet the prevalence of
swearword use suggests that an offensiveness perspective may not fully capture their impact in marketing. This paper adopts a linguistic perspective to develop and test a model of how, why, and when swearword use affects consumers in online word-of-mouth. In two field datasets and four experiments, the authors show that relative to reviews with no swearwords, or with nonswearword synonyms (e.g., super), reviews with swearwords (e.g., damn) impact review readers. First, reviews with swearwords are rated as more helpful. Second, when a swearword qualifies a desirable [undesirable] product attribute, readers’ attitudes toward the product increase [decrease] (e.g., “This dishwasher is damn quiet [loud]!”). Swearwords impact readers because they convey meaning about 1) the reviewer and 2) the topic (product) under discussion. These two meanings function as independent, parallel mediators that drive the observed effects. Further, these effects are moderated by swearword number and style: they do not emerge when a review contains many swearwords and are stronger for uncensored and euphemistic swearwords (e.g., darn) than censored swearwords (e.g., d*mn). Overall, swearwords in reviews provide value to readers—and review platforms—because they efficiently and effectively convey two meanings.


The article, The Power of Profanity: The Meaning and Impact of Swearwords in Word-of-Mouth, written by Katherine LafreniereSarah Moore and Robert Fisher has been published in the Journal of Marketing Research.


Katie Lafreniere 

Katherine Lafreniere is an assistant professor in the department of Marketing, Business Economics and Law (effective July 1st, 2022). Her research focuses on taboos and vices in consumer behavior. She is also interested in topics related to the production and consumption of language in marketing contexts. 

The primary focus of Sarah Moore's research is on communication and language, both among consumers and between consumers and firms. For communication among consumers, she examines online word-of-mouth (WOM), or stories consumers tell about experiences with products, brands, or services. Here, she explores how consumers are influenced by sending or receiving WOM that contains different linguistic content (e.g., explanations, swearwords). For communication between firms and consumers, Sarah investigates how the language used in questions, advertising, and consumer-service interactions impacts consumers (e.g., imperatives, pronouns).

In a second area of research, she investigates consumer behaviour in situations that are underexplored in the literature, but common in everyday life. For example, she examines what happens when out-of-stock products restrict consumers’ choice freedoms, or when choices must be made not for the self, but for others. 

Robert Fisher's research emphasizes the effects of social expectations on managerial and consumer decision making. He is particularly interested in how organizations can enhance communication flows between functional areas to improve new product development success. His research also provides insights into the effectiveness of marketing strategies designed to encourage positive social behaviors such as volunteering. Fisher's research is published in the leading journals including the Journal of Consumer Research, Journal of Marketing, Psychology & Marketing, Journal of Services Marketing and Journal of Product Innovation Management. He is on the editorial board of the Journal of Consumer Research and Psychology & Marketing and has served as editor for a special issue on social desirability bias in Psychology & Marketing. His 1996 Journal of Marketing article with Jakki Mohr and John Nevin received the Stern Award in 2003.

Fisher has co-authored a book titled, "Internet Marketing in a Networked Economy," (Second Edition) with McGraw-Hill. The book examines how firms can develop stronger relationships with their customers through the Internet and traditional marketing tactics.

Fisher has extensive experience in sales, marketing research, and marketing management. He has been a marketing strategy consultant and educator for major firms in North America and Asia including the Royal Bank, HSBC, Bank of China, Canadian Tire, Allied Signal, Hutchison Port Holdings, and London Life.