Research Ngā Rangahau

What Not to Swear: The Acceptability of Words in Broadcasting, 2010


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What Not to Swear: The Acceptability of Words in Broadcasting, Report PDF (587.4 KB)  
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Date published: 2010

Research Company: Nielsen Corporation


  • Quantitative research to provide a monitor of the acceptability of the use of swear words, blasphemies and other expletives in broadcasting
  • Focuses on free-to-air rather than pay-to-view broadcasting


  • Administered national survey with 1,500 randomly selected individuals aged 18 years and over
  • Online methodology survey as differentiated from the 1999 and 2005 surveys which made use of a face-to-face interview technique


  • 31 words presented to respondents, 23 included in the 2005 survey and eight new words or phrases: Jesus Fucking Christ, Get Fucked, Fuck off, Faggot, Retard, Slut, Jesus and Piss off
  • Respondents rated eight words as Totally or Fairly unacceptable in relation to the scenario of a television drama shown after 8:30pm – Cunt (74%), Nigger (66%), Mother Fucker (66%), Jesus Fucking Christ (65%), Cocksucker (60%), Get fucked (55%), Fuck off (52%) and Fuck (51%)
  • The least contentious words, rated as Totally or Fairly acceptable were: Bugger (11%), Bloody (12%) and Bollocks (12%)
  • The order of the words found to be the most offensive to the least offensive remain largely the same as found in 2005 and in 1999
  • 6 of the 8 words added in 2009 ranked among the top 12 most unacceptable words, except for Jesus and Piss off
  • 14 of the 23 words included in both the 2005 and 2009 surveys had statistically significant decrease in the proportion who finds these words unacceptable in the scenario in question
  • Similar trend existed between the 1999 and 2005 surveys, 12 of 23 words experienced a significant decrease
  • These 14 words are: Fuck, Whore, Arsehole, Jesus Christ, Prick, Bitch, Bastard, Shit, Balls, Bullshit, Crap, Bollocks, Bloody and Bugger
  • This indicates a continuing trend of softening of attitudes to the use of certain swear words in broadcasting, particularly to those words that are less contentious
  • The word Cunt remains unacceptable to a large majority of New Zealanders (74%)
  • When comparing the different demographic groups, it is evident that:
    • Males tend to be more accepting of words than females
    • Younger respondents tend to be more accepting than older respondents
    • Those that state they have no religion tend to be more accepting than those of religious belief
    • Those of NZ European ethnicity are generally more accepting than those in the Maori, Pacific Island and Asian ethnic groups
  • In 2009, respondents were asked to consider the acceptability of words in 10 different contexts. Some notable patterns that emerged were:
    • Use of ‘bad’ language by radio hosts, in both breakfast programmes and talkback scenarios, is less acceptable than in other scenarios
    • There appears less tolerance for use of ‘bad’ language from real people (as opposed to actors), including interviewees and callers to radio talkback
    • ‘Bad’ language tends to be more acceptable when used after 8:30pm than before 8:30pm
  • There was no differentiation made by respondents in relation to acceptability of such language in general between:
  • Songs played on radio and music videos in television
  • Radio host in a breakfast programme and radio host in talkback
  • The majority (68%) hold the same views in relation to acceptability of language, irrespective of whether a broadcast is free-to-air or pay-to-view