In the U.S., live and “reality” television programs have long defended their audiences’ tender ears against accidental obscenity by deploying a brief broadcast delay – sometimes called the seven-second delay or the profanity delay – to give technicians time to replace offending language with a 1000 Hz tone known as a “bleep.” The bleep has become so embedded in popular culture that mockumentary-style sitcoms like “The Office” and “Parks and Recreation” often used it for comic effect.
More and more, advertisers are playing the game, too, inserting bleeps into scripts to signal how hip they are … or perhaps just to startle viewers awake.
Since early 2015, for instance, Hyundai has been giving us “Holy [bleep]!” in a commercial about the carmaker’s Sonata model. Video isn’t embeddable, but you can view it here.
From the same campaign, a spot for the Santa Fe employs word-substitution (“blueberry” for “bitch”) instead of bleeping – while mocking the seven-second delay.
A couple of months ago, a California company called Plato Dog Treats uploaded a YouTube commercial that promises dog owners “a [bleep]-ton of meat.” (For more on shit-tons and their equivalents, see “Units of Fucking Measure.”)
And Frank’s Red Hot Sauce is still running a spot that originally aired in 2012, featuring a white-haired, pearl-bedecked lady who declares, “I put that [bleep] on everything.”
But the trope goes back further than that, to at least October 2007, when CURE Auto Insurance — the name is an acronym for Citizens United* Reciprocal Exchange; the company does business in New Jersey and Pennsylvania — ran a 10-second TV spot during a Rutgers University (New Jersey) football game, in which the bleeps seemed to be masking a couple of utterances of fuck.
In April 2008, New York Times advertising columnist Stuart Elliott saw the beginnings of a trend:
Advertisers are winking at the contentious issue of content regulation by using bleeping sounds in commercials and video clips. The bleeps mimic how television and radio obscure bad language in live news coverage or taped reality shows.
Many times, the bleeps heard in commercials are covering actual expletives, which are written into the scripts solely to be censored. …
Sometimes, there is nothing blue or objectionable about the words being hidden. Rather, consumers are being encouraged to jump to the conclusion that they are being protected from something crude.
Case in point: an ad for McDonald’s franchisees in the New York City area in which an F-word — “free” — was bleeped. The idea, wrote Elliott, was that the deals are so good “they’re obscene.”
The noun bleep — sometimes spelled blip — first appeared in print in the early 1950s; the word echoes the actual sound. It took until the late 1960s for bleep to signify a sound that masks a taboo or objectionable word; the verb form began appearing in the early 1970s. The OED‘s earliest citation for this sense of the word is from an April 1968 issue of Life magazine article about two of the era’s boundary-challenging TV shows, “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In” and “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour”:
The Rowan and Martin staff, they say, is so free-wheeling that a fulltime censor has been assigned … Over in Smothersville, similar ballyhoo is made over every insignificant bleep.
The Fall-Winter 1976 issue of American Speech, the journal of the American Dialect Society, included bleep and variants in the “Among the New Words” section; significantly, bleep had already migrated from an audio reference to a literary device employed in cartoon captions and magazine articles. Here’s a citation from a 1972 issue of True magazine article about Leo (“The Lip”) Durocher, then the manager of the Chicago Cubs: “Durocher soon showed that he had lost none of his gift for casual obscenity and vituperative analysis. ‘That bleep,‘ he said of one player, employing an Anglo-Saxonism that has long been his favorite noun, verb and adjective.”
Of late, advertisers have taken liberties with the bleep. A 2013 spot for BMW, for example, replaces the 1000 Hz tone with a car horn (“Hey, honey, where the [honk] are you going?”).
And sometimes the bleeping crosses over from racy to absurd, as in a spot for Adam & Eve “adult products,” in which non-swears like vibrator are not only bleeped out but also pixelated. A “mega-huge football game” ad that Newcastle Brown Ale “almost made” for the 2014 Super Bowl features actress Anna Kendrick being bleeped every time she says “Super Bowl” — a jab at the National Football League’s notorious trademark bullying of users of the term.
And a regular feature of “Jimmy Kimmel Live,” the late-night TV show, carries the notion to its logical extreme: “This Week in Unnecessary Censorship” bleeps and blurs “all the week’s big moments, whether they need it or not.”
For sheer bleeping meta-ness, though, you probably can’t beat a couple of non-kindred Bleep brands: Bleep.com, a source for independent music downloads; and Bleep.pm, a private-messaging service. That .pm domain, suggesting “after dark,” is a nice touch: it’s the country code for Saint Pierre-et-Miquelon, a French territory off the coast of Newfoundland.
(Thanks to SL contributor Ben Zimmer for many of the ad examples, and for the idea for this post.)
* No, not that Citizens United.