If you’re having trouble settling on a topic, theme, or genre for your next viral video masterpiece… consider getting vulgar. Seriously… it’s all the rage. Everyone’s doing it. In just the past week we’ve seen two of the biggest viral hits of the entire year released, and both are leveraging extreme vulgarity for their rise to popularity.
The first, which I saw over the weekend, is called “F%!$ Me, Ray Bradbury.” It’s a bit of a comedic love song from a geeky girl to her science fiction hero, author Ray Bradbury–he wrote Fahrenheit 451, as well as a ton of other great works. This video comes from comedian and actress Rachel Bloom, and is just about as raunchy in language as any YouTube clip I’ve ever seen. But if you’re not averse the f-word, and you like to laugh, you’ll probably be interested in watching the video below. And just to make sure I go overboard on the fair warnings: This Video Contains Foul Language! Okay, now you can watch it:
This video works so well because it’s shocking, it’s sexy, and it’s hilarious. Combining the intellectual attraction to Bradbury’s writing with this kind of in-your-face sexuality creates a juxtaposition that is just… funny. She seems every bit as attracted to his mind as preteen girls are to Justin Bieber’s face. In an interview with the Seattle PI newspaper, she says:
“I would say very earnestly that I am overwhelmed with how well he combines such mind-blowingly cool ideas with the realism of how humans deal with these ideas. What struck me especially about Martian Chronicles or The Illustrated Man…. I found myself as emotionally engaged as I was mentally. If I really met him, I would be nothing but respectful and probably like the 12-year-old boy I secretly am inside.”
The video is helped along in its viral pursuit due to the singer’s attractiveness—never underestimate the viral power of attractive people. Plus, the song is just downright catchy. It’s intentionally funny, but it’s musically and lyrically as good as most of what you’ll find on YouTube. And she timed the release of the video to coincide with the author’s 90th birthday, which helped it get a lot more attention.
But perhaps the biggest reason this video went viral is the vulgarity. It’s unabashedly in your face about its raunchiness. The title of the video, containing the mother of all swear words, dares the viewer to watch. Profanity, when used correctly, can punctuate your point, whether that’s humor or drama or political views. It can be overdone, for sure. But the taboo nature of curse words in our culture causes us to be shocked and surprised when we hear them—especially when they’re coming out of the mouth of a pretty girl.
Oh, and Ray Bradbury apparently got quite a kick out of the video as well—Bloom posted this image on her Facebook of Bradbury’s reaction to her clip.
Another video leveraging the power and impact of vulgarity is going viral this week, and it’s from artist Cee-Lo Green, who is part of the group Gnarls Barkley. The song, titled “[email protected]%! You,” has racked up nearly 2.5 million views in just five days. You should be warned—yet again—that there is bad language in this video, so don’t click ‘Play’ if that offends you.
Now, Cee-Lo is taking some heat for the vulgarity, but swearing and music have been the best of friends for years. This is nothing new. It’s just new to have a song entitled “[email protected]%! You”—and actually, that’s not even true, as British singer Lily Allen released a song a called “[email protected]%! You” last year.
But there does seem to be a rise in recent weeks of in-your-face cursing on YouTube, and I think… in a weird way, some audiences find that refreshing. They would argue that swearing happens all around us in our daily lives, so why should we freak out so much when it’s used in entertainment and media? They see it as a welcome relief to find a singer or comedian willing to embrace the vulgarity for the sake of humor—heck, George Carlin built an entire career off of doing this… the concept of using profanity as an attention-getter is older than you or I.
It clearly doesn’t work as well with business videos, as most companies shoot for an identity that has appeal to men and women of all ages. But when a brand has an edgier demographic, sometimes a little well-placed vulgarity can actually endear you to your target audience. That’s why it’s perfect for comedians or musical acts—because swearing is already pretty firmly entrenched as a part of that world. And don’t make the mistake of thinking that Cee-Lo isn’t a business entity, because he is.
Let’s also not forget how much a dash of controversy can help propel a video to viral status, and these two examples are no different, as parents’ groups and decency watchdogs are crying foul and calling for the videos to be ignored… which only makes them more appealing to the biggest audience segment on YouTube: young people.
I would never suggest a business or corporation put the f-word in the title of their next online video. If you think Cee-Lo is facing some critics for swearing in a viral clip, imagine if it was Pepsi or Goodyear doing it. But that doesn’t mean we can’t glean some knowledge from these successes.
Maybe profanity is out of the question for your video, but you can still shock and surprise people in ways that aren’t offensive. Think of a way you can throw your audience off-guard by showing them something completely unexpected or jarring—that’s a tried-and-true method of grabbing an audience’s attention that has been used by professors and parents and preachers for hundreds of years. It doesn’t have to involve cursing. But if you’re not actively planning on ways to startle your audience and grab their attention, your message might not get through to the people you’re trying to reach.