What Not to Swear: The Acceptability of Words in Broadcasting

What Not to Swear: The Acceptability of Words in B…
01 Jan 2009

These reports and this page contain language that some people will find offensive!

This report documents the findings of a national survey carried out in November and December 2009 among 1500 members of the general public aged 18 years and over.

This survey measured how acceptable the public finds the use of swear words, blasphemies and other expletives in broadcasting.

Where possible, comparisons have been made with surveys conducted in 1999 and 2005 to help determine whether public attitudes are changing over time.


The research objectives were as follows:

• To what extent does the public find the use of specific words in broadcasting acceptable or unacceptable?

• To what extent does acceptability vary according to context?

• To what extent does acceptability vary according to whether or not the broadcast is on pay television?

The focus of this survey was 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

Key Results

  • 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
Page last modified: 15 Mar 2018