COMMENT:

Weighed down by the humid weight of the heatwave across Australia and New Zealand, Netflix this week took to its Australia/NZ Facebook account and exclaimed "F**k it's hot."

There was no censorship of the post. Just the offensive word laid bare, baiting Facebook fans to express their outrage.

The fury never came. On the contrary, the post was widely applauded by almost 10,000 commenters for perfectly catching the general mood of everyone desperately seeking refuge in any air-conditioned space available.

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By slipping into the cultural zeitgeist of the moment, Netflix was able to humanise the brand and show that, like every Aussie and Kiwi, it sweats too.

But Netflix isn't your friend. It might appear in your social feed alongside the anti-government ravings of your weird uncle, but it remains a giant, faceless multinational corporation. The post was simply the product of a deft communications strategy focused on getting you to "engage" with a business desperate to be perceived as cool – even on the hottest days of the year.

Subtle as it might be, this post needs to be called what it is: Advertising.

The context and the channel might be new, but it remains a marketing message distributed via a media platform.

The fact that it has not attracted a single complaint to the Advertising Standards Authority is a strong indication that we have come a long way from 1999, when uttering the word "bugger" in an ad sparked national outrage and attracted 120 complaints.

Netflix isn't the only company to be pushing towards the edge of appropriateness these days. Drinks company Remedy Kombucha is currently running a series of outdoor ads featuring the phrase "tell sugar to get fruct" – a mischievous play on the company's main selling point -- that it's a low-sugar beverage. Like the Netflix post, the Remedy ad has not received any ASA complaints.

Remedy Kombucha's new ad campaign on display in New Zealand. Image/File.
Remedy Kombucha's new ad campaign on display in New Zealand. Image/File.

This kind of edgy playfulness has also shown up in the UK last year, when KFC ran a full-page apology for running out of chicken, in which the lettering on a bucket of chicken was jumbled to say FCK.

Too far?

Advertising expert Paul Catmur, from the agency Barnes Catmur & Friends Dentsu, believes there's definitely been a shift in New Zealand's tolerance for bad language.

"When a cricketer can describe another player on live TV as a 'lucky c***' without the sky falling in, we know that swearing is losing its power to shock," says Catmur in reference to former cricketer Mark Waugh's recent faux pas.

"This is not in itself a bad thing; swearing has been around since man learned to talk about a 'big-a*** f***ing mammoth'. What worries me is that everything is losing its power to shock.

"When an individual can be openly racist, sympathise with white supremacists, talk about 'grabbing women by the pussy', and still be elected to public office, it makes me nostalgic for the day when the word 'bugger' could be a source of national outrage."

The C-word

ASA chief executive Hilary Souter says that while Kiwi tolerance for bad language has certainly increased, it still depends largely on context.

She says the ads most likely to be pinged for bad language are usually located outdoors because there's no filter in terms of who can and can't see them. This is opposed to online ads, which can be targeted, and TV ads, which can be scheduled at age-appropriate times.

An example of this played out last year when Burgerfuel placed an ad for its long-running Bastard Burger in the vicinity of St Mark's Church School in Auckland, which is attended by 2- to 13-year-old students.

Posted by BurgerFuel on Tuesday, 3 July 2018

While the ad campaign had already ended by the time the decision was made, the ASA noted that the ad had been "inappropriately located" near a school.

In this case the concern didn't derive so much from the word as it did from the likelihood of children seeing it. And this is perhaps where Netflix had its best alibi against any outrage.

Facebook requires users to be at least 13 years of age, and Netflix could also have easily restricted the post to those above a certain age.

Burgerfuel, on the other hand, did not have any of these arguments at its disposal.

Souter says examples like Burgerfuel's ad show that words shouldn't be viewed in a vacuum, but rather in the context of when and where they appear, because this often has a bigger bearing on appropriateness.

Another important point is that the words most likely to cause offence these days often aren't traditional swear words.

The Broadcasting Standards Authority's 2018 list of the words New Zealanders found most offensive indicated that words such as 'f***' had lost their shock factor since the last survey in 2013, while phrases that were racially insensitive, homophobic or sexist were more likely to offend in the current cultural context.

Perhaps part of the reason users were happy to let Netflix's colourful description of the heat slide was because it didn't harm or belittle anyone. Rather than dividing people, it almost served as a unifying force, pinpointing the one thing everyone across the region had in common in that moment.