December 6, 2013 9.51 am This story is over 102 months old

Should businesses swear at customers?

Marketing trick gone wrong: Shaun Cole examines Spotify’s controversial email campaign for a song by Lilly Allen that backfired.

Is it OK for a business to swear at its customers? No, of course it isn’t.

But what if it is a tongue-in-cheek marketing campaign aimed at an audience that, in all probability, isn’t likely to be offended? Hmmm, it’s tempting, I suppose. But as music streaming website Spotify found out this week, it’s still a line you don’t cross.

The online music streaming service got into trouble with advertising watchdogs over an email marketing campaign that said ‘F**k you’.

In a bid to promote the Lily Allen single F**k You, Spotify prepared an email with the subject heading “Have you heard this song by Lily Allen? Give it a try. F**k You,” but the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) ruled that this was likely to cause offence.

Spotify tried to justify its position by saying that it had used an algorithm that took into account its users’ listening histories to create a mailing list of people likely to have listened to music of a similar genre to the Lily Allen single and it would therefore be a helpful recommendation.

It has a point, but it’s also missed the point.

The algorithm had made an assumption that people receiving the email were unlikely to be offended because they probably knew Lily Allen, her body of work and the fact that it’s not the first time she’s been a potty mouth in her songs. How did it know that? Spotify can’t just assume that just because someone has heard swearing in a song that they’re OK with being told ‘F**k you’.

It goes to show that as clever as these algorithms are in profiling us based on our habits or purchases, there are still a lot of things they don’t know about us, and the ability to shock or offend is one of them. In that respect, they don’t know their customers that well at all.

Yes, the email is mildly amusing. Would I have opened the email? Probably. But that’s because I’ve spent my working life in an industry that creates things that are designed to stand out, so I marvel at anything that grabs my attention – even if I do wince a little, thinking ‘I wouldn’t have done that, but I’ll have a look anyway.’

Besides, I doubt that an email titled “Have you heard this song by Lily Allen? Give it a try. F**k You” would have got past the filters on many people’s email accounts anyway.

If you want to see examples of clever use of profanity in advertising, see this article on the Ideafuel blog.

Shaun Cole is Account Director at Ideafuel, a creative-led graphic design, marketing and branding agency based at the Think Tank in Lincoln.