Should brands ditch the slang?

Jun 23, 2017
Tom Ryan

With competition fierce to gain attention on social media and other communications channels, brands are ramping up the irreverence. But, according to a study from Sprout Social, consumers aren’t impressed when brands use slang in their messaging. Sixty-nine percent of respondents found brands using slang to be “annoying” versus 31 percent finding it “cool.”

The only other traits drawing a more negative response in the survey was talking politics, with 71 percent finding it annoying, and making fun of customers, at 88 percent. Only slightly better was making fun of competitors, coming in at 67 percent.

One caveat from the study is that Millennials were relatively more forgiving of brands who use slang than their older counterparts: 59 percent found slang “annoying” versus 41 percent finding it “cool.” Among Gen-X and Boomers, the same ratio was 74 percent versus 26 percent.

Indeed, such jargon has been employed to reach younger sub-segments and its use has helped recent campaigns from McDonald’s, IHOP, Hefty and others go viral via social media.

“Slang helps consumers relate to brands on a more personal level by giving the brand’s message a more conversational tone,” wrote Melissa Duko, editor for, on

Some see social media constantly refreshing and taking slang to a new level. Wrote McSweeney’s columnist and etymologist, Mark Peters, in a column last year in The Boston Globe, “Slang tied to social groups but untethered by convention is language at its most raw and real.”

On the downside, it’s all too common to see brands overuse text acronyms (LOL), GIFs or emojis in hopes of catching a viral wave. Tailoring to an audience also carries high risks as phrases continually move in and out of fashion.

“Brands have been doing this since long before Twitter, so I don’t think the trend is going to disappear any time soon,” Alexis Toney, director of paid media strategy at Laundry Service, told Digiday. “Marketers need to be a little more discerning about when and where they use these tactics.”

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: Are you a fan of retailers and brands using slang as part of their marketing efforts? What advice would you have around the use of slang in communications or marketing?

"Even if the slang is authentic to the brand’s voice, whoever writes the jargon-laden content should actually use the words in their daily life."
"Whatever tone and voice brands use to reach people, the key is authenticity. "
"I’m not a fan of slang as it strikes me as a lazy way to get attention."

Join the Discussion!

13 Comments on "Should brands ditch the slang?"

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Bob Amster

The reaction to the use of slang is generational. Messages to the public can be creative without lowering the standard of quality to the lowest common denominator. We already have enough problems with not speaking clearly and not using the correct terminology in common conversation.

Tom Erskine
6 months 30 days ago

Whatever tone and voice brands use to reach people, the key is authenticity. If you genuinely speak to customers in the language they expect you can create a tighter bond. If you fake it, it will come across as annoying.

This applies to everything, not just slang. As a Massachusetts resident when I hear a radio spot using a bad Boston accent, it’s awful. When it’s someone that obviously grew up here, it just sounds normal.

Ben Ball
+1. (Oops, is that “slang”) You hit the key points in less than 100 key strokes, Tom. It’s all about authenticity. As a fan of edgy writing — often employing my native colloquialisms in my analogies and commentary — I have learned first hand that it doesn’t always work for everyone. And that is coming from an individual. For a brand the bar goes much, much higher. One of the best examples of successful use of slang by a brand far predated Twitter. That was the use of the Chester Cheetah character for the Cheetos brand. The Cheetos mouse could never have gotten away with the persona that Chester could carry as a “cool dude in a loose mood.” And one of the worst examples comes from the same brand stable — one that shows that it goes beyond authenticity and extends to the tone struck with all your audiences. While still the highest recall advertising ever done for the Fritos Brand, and although only being on air for less than 18 months, the Frito… Read more »
Lee Kent

You hit that one on the nose, Tom! I can’t add a thing for my 2 cents! I’m southern and boy it’s awful listening to people try to imitate our cadence.

Art Suriano

What is important is the message. Stay away from clichés, uninteresting approaches and the obvious. A company achieves success when they are original with their message, using creativity to attract attention and with something profound to offer a customer. They used to call them “ad campaigns.” But today more often than not is a blur of companies with contrived messages that are dull and flat, and that’s when slang, making fun of customers or competitors, etc. are annoying and don’t work. The message should be on the strengths of the brand. It can use humor although I always caution clients that unless you produce a series of funny ads, the joke gets tired quickly and thus becomes annoying. So create a message that is attractive and appealing to customers. If it has slang but it works, that’s fine. But if the message is a cheap shot at trying to be clever, then get rid of it.

Celeste C. Giampetro

We’re on the same wavelength again, Art. As a former copywriter, I’m not a fan of slang as it strikes me as a lazy way to get attention. If you’ve nailed the USP and it’s truly something customers care about, clear over clever will win out. Easier said than done, of course, but no one said creativity was easy. And yes, I too agree that authenticity is important, but misses the bigger point about clarity of message and a compelling product.

Ed Rosenbaum

The key is to reach the brand’s customers. Who are they? And what is the best wording to use to get their attention? If it is slang, which many Millennials seem to understand better; then so be it. Much of the slang terminology seems to have started with sports talk radio giving teams nicknames; such as calling the Dolphins “The Fish” or the Orioles “The Birds.” Those type of nicknames are not appealing but have certainly caught on with the younger generations.

Steve Montgomery

I find it difficult to believe that a long-time brand use of slang would be seen as authentic rather than pathetic. As the research indicates the acceptance of slang is driven to a great extent by the age of the audience. Its use by a startup aimed at Millennials might work but I don’t foresee anyone believing Macy’s as a brand is cool. They may sell items or even have items that are “cool” but the brand is not.

Jasmine Glasheen

It’s hilarious that brands are failing at communicating with their younger customers so intensely that this is the topic of a RetailWire conversation. When it comes to slang and jargon, brands shouldn’t use it if it isn’t authentic to their voice.

Even if the slang is authentic to the brand’s voice, whoever writes the jargon-laden content should actually use the words in their daily life, or they come off like a dad trying to be cool.

Kai Clarke

Differentiate your message according to your target market. Marketers need to treat slang like they treat another language. If their target uses it, they should use it and only use it for their target market. It is like posting a message in Spanish to a non-Spanish market … don’t do it.

Doug Garnett
Far too often, slang, edginess, negativity, text abbreviations, emoji’s and any of a thousand other approaches reflect a 40 year old creative director’s attempt to keep themselves young. But more often than not, slang is used to avoid thinking deeply and getting clear about what we’re trying to say. Yes, in some cases marketing can use some slang and succeed. But when it goes bad, it goes very bad. I once worked with advertising for “inline skates for the snow.” Despite warnings, our CD had created long form advertising with bazooka toting bikini babes and a host of other creative ideas that were projections about what the young want. We did research with the ads among 16-20 year old inline skaters we recruited at skate parks. Their response? They wanted to know what the product was, how it was made, how they’d use it for tricks, whether it would last … in other words they wanted to be sure they’d be making good use of their money. Duh. They don’t have much — it better… Read more »
Ralph Jacobson

Keep the messaging positive and mainstream. Many of the words we all use today were slang to start with, but have become a genuine part of our vernacular. In those cases, I don’t think slang is at issue. However, when brands employ short-term, trendy language, it comes off as insincere.

Christopher P. Ramey

Find what resonates with your targeted prospect. Then say it in such a way that your prospect understands it without the need to dumb-down your marketing with slang.

Like a comedian who resorts to using swear words, slang is a safety net for weak marketers.

"Even if the slang is authentic to the brand’s voice, whoever writes the jargon-laden content should actually use the words in their daily life."
"Whatever tone and voice brands use to reach people, the key is authenticity. "
"I’m not a fan of slang as it strikes me as a lazy way to get attention."

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