Censors generally feel an obligation to do their job. When they see something that they know they should be screening for indecent content, they're liable to toss something out, just so that everyone knows they're on the lookout. An overly permissive censor board would sort of defeat the whole purpose. Anything that's the least bit edgy needs to be shaved down at least a little.
Some wily filmmakers realize this and make a simple deduction. If we assume that the censors are going to cut out X amount of material no matter what's in the product, then the censors can be distracted by Crossing the Line Twice, heck, maybe three times. Because that Double Entendre about pencils looks pretty darn innocent compared to a ten-minute action-sequence involving a demon made of crap.
That's how the Censor Decoy should work in theory — it's something so offensive that it's the only thing the censors are supposed to pay attention to. Creators write extra lines, produce extra scenes, even design extra characters fully expecting all this work to die in the editing room. Hopefully this sacrifice ensures the survival of the questionable parts that the creators really wanted to include. If the gamble succeeds, we have to take the word of the creators that this is actually going on. The entire point of the decoy is so that we never have to see it.
Of course, sometimes the censors somehow inexplicably miss something that clearly crosses the line and, well, it's going in the final product. Other times, they catch both the decoy and the naughty bits it was supposed to conceal, resulting in business as usual. (Well, at least the creators made them work a little harder.)
A form of Getting Crap Past the Radar (especially if the over-the-top scene is chosen over the toned-down scene, or if the writers often use the Censor Decoy to get whatever they want past the censors and the censors keep falling for it). Compare Correction Bait, where you make a glaringly obvious error to get a complainer off your tail, or to be a Troll. See also Testing the Editors, when a creator puts something in the work to make sure their editor is paying attention. Contrast Refuge in Audacity, which often operates on the premise that some offensive content is so outrageous that any rational person would have to view it as harmless. Compare Surprisingly Lenient Censor for occasions when the censors think the edgy stuff is OK.
- Dilbert: Scott Adams once submitted a strip featuring a cop firing his gun at some suspects. It didn't pass muster. So he submitted a new version where the panel of the gun actually firing just contained the text "BANG BANG BANG". Still too violent, as the strip still showed a cop holding a gun. So as a joke he did a version that was the same as the first one except the cop fired actual bullets from a donut. He did this to point out that it was the firing, not the gun itself that was violent, and that therefore the second one should be acceptable. The editors apparently had the opposite opinion, and it was published donut and all.
- Frank Cho's Liberty Meadows website basically only shows the strips that were deemed unfit to print (and thus are unavailable for sale) many of which push this trope (and a few even lampshade it by Cho's Author Avatar showing up in the last panel and lamenting that his editor will never let this get published.)
- Foxtrot in-universe example: Jason and Marcus ask for money to rent "Big Slashing Mommas with Chainsaw Daughters", which is shot down immediately. Jason then says they'll just rent Scarface, which works.
- Jim Davis, back in the 80s, once submitted a Garfield comic his syndicate, where Garfield, after finding a plot of catnip, ends up waking up in Atlantic City with a Barbie doll. He did it as a joke not expecting them to run it as it depicted drugs, gambling, sex and a copyright violation to boot. Much to his surprise, they ran it.
- In Animal House, the writers figured that the ratings board would object to implying sex with a 16-year-old, so they did the scene with her claiming to be 13, expecting to have to go back and "correct" the scene. They were surprised when the scene was not considered objectionable.
- In Citizen Kane, Orson Welles originally had his "There Is A Man" musical sequence take place inside a whorehouse, but it was cut due to The Hays Code's rules against anything remotely sexual in film. He was hoping that it would distract from the many disparaging references to William Randolph Hearst.
- In Casino, the infamous Head in a Vise scene was added to draw the censor's attention away from the record breaking use of profanity and the other scenes of violence. Apparently, this didn't work, as both the vise scene and the other questionable scenes were left intact. Scorcese tried a similar tactic in The Wolf of Wall Street. This time, only an hour's worth of footage got the ax, though that may have been because of time constraints, not content.
- The 1954 biopic Deep In My Heart includes a pas de deux between Cyd Charisse and James Mitchell, set to the song "One Alone", that is obviously a sex scene (it features extremely suggestive partnering moves and concludes with the man in a state of postcoital exhaustion). Charisse, Mitchell, and director Stanley Donen all later admitted to being shocked that the censors failed to realize what was happening; Charisse speculated that they were all too hung up on the high cut of her skirt to notice the actual steps.
- When famous Soviet comedy director Leonid Gaidai presented his new film, The Diamond Arm, to the censors, he added a nuclear explosion footage into the epilogue - and argued furiously to keep it. This allowed him to sneak in some "controversial" (by that time's standards) material such as striptease, drunken debauchery and references to prostitution.
- Gaidai did that in two other films. Kidnapping, Caucasian Style starts with Those Three Guys writing a bad word on a fence, before hurriedly writing "feature film" when a cop walks by. As soon as the censors demanded the scene removed, Gaidai told his friends, "I knew they'd remove it and calm down."
- In Ivan Vasilievich Changes Profession, Gaidai initially included an up-close shot of the float pen George gave to the Swedish ambassador, which had the image of a girl in a swimsuit lose her swimsuit if the pen is flipped over (hence the ambassador's reaction). Naturally, the censors demanded the shot removed. Gaidai fought furiously to keep it (his acting experience helped), until the censors finally put their foot down and told him, "This isn't Hollywood." As expected, Gaidai told his friends that it was exactly what he'd planned.
- Alfred Hitchcock famously put a shot of Marion Crane's buttocks in his original cut of Psycho so the censors would let him keep a plot-important scene of a flushed toilet, which at the time would not have been allowed to be shown on film.
- Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg admitted that they attempted this for apocalyptic comedy This Is the End, including sexually-explicit material they assumed would get an NC-17 rating, allowing them to cut it down to an R. They were surprised when the MPAA gave the uncut movie an R.
- It's how Mae West's bawdy one-liners got past The Hays Code in the first place.
- Trey Parker and Matt Stone have said that their original cut of South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut was rated NC-17. Then they retooled it by taking out the "offensive" stuff and putting in things that "were five times worse". The new cut was rated R. Here is a memo written by Matt Stone detailing what he thinks should replace the scenes the Censor Board noted as too far.
- Even the movie's title was an example of this. Parker and Stone originally wanted to call the movie South Park: All Hell Breaks Loose, but the suits vetoed it on grounds that the title could not contain profanity. The duo sarcastically suggested "Bigger, Longer, and Uncut" as a subtitle, and were flabbergasted when the executives missed the obvious phallic Double Entendre.
- They included explicit puppet sex in Team America: World Police as a more traditional attempt at this. It worked perfectly - the original cut got the NC-17 for just this scene. With the alterations, they resubmitted it for an R. As a bonus, the "uncut" version gained more notoriety than it ever would have otherwise. Parker and Stone confirmed that this was a deliberate example on-camera in the documentary This Film is Not Yet Rated . The final version was less than half of the originally filmed sex scene. Reportedly, the original was so filthy that some of the puppeteers refused to show up for work that day.
- In Spain, during Franco's oppressive fascist regime, one trick that filmmakers used to get crap past the radar is they would write the script they wanted to make, then submit a different script for approval, knowing it would get marked for change. When they submitted the original script, the censors would see that everything marked for change had been and approve the script, letting the filmmakers do almost whatever they wanted. The most infamous example of this was Luis Buñuel's Viridiana, whom even after using the above tricks submitting incredibly tame versions of the script and footage the Censor-approved cut was still deemed a bit too indecent to be premiered in Cannes Festival as Spain's representative; but because the film could be premiered as an independent one, film's star Silvia Pinal smuggled on the uncensored version to be show instead of the Spain-approved one. This stunt cost Buñuel his Spanish passport.
- On a meta level, this is one of the ways Yiddish words sneaked into American English. Faced with censorship boards at the studio and local level that would object to certain terminology and phrases in "standard" English, the filmmakers (many were Jewish), would sneak objectionable insults and phrases in via Yiddish as a Second Language. The trick only worked until the words caught on, though. Mel Brooks movies all but run on this trope.
- David Fincher pulled off something like this in Fight Club (similarly to Trey Parker and Matt Stone with the title of South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut). A producer ordered him to change the bit from the book in which Marla Singer declares, "I want to have your abortion." Fincher agreed on the condition that he only had to change it once, and the producer took the bait. The replacement line? "Oh my god, I haven't been fucked like that since grade school." The censor told Fincher to change the now-worse line back to the original one, but since she'd agreed to only change it once, it was left in. Also, Helena Bonham Carter only said the line because she didn't realize that "grade school" is the American equivalent to "primary school" in Britain. She said if she'd known what she was asked to say, she'd have insisted on a rewrite.
- Murder on the Orient Express (2017): A variant aimed at book purists. When directing and starring as Hercule Poirot, Kenneth Branagh gave himself a frankly ridiculous mustache.◊ It was later explained that this was done so that everyone forgot that Poirot was portrayed as blond, graying, tall and fit rather than the book’s rotund, short, black-haired detective. By all accounts it worked.
- An old Russian joke goes something like this: a young screenwriter complains to his mentor that his script is always turned down by the censoring board. The mentor advises him to insert a scene with a flying green dog. Afterwards, the censors says after reading the new draft: "The script has improved by leaps and bounds, but what's that stupid green dog doing in a work of Socialist Realism? Lose the dog, and you're good to go!"
- Lampshaded in Randy Alcorn's Dominion, in which columnist Clarence Abernathy puts several Censor Decoys in his column for his politically correct editor.
- In-Universe example in the Xanth novel Heaven Cent. Prince Dolph wants to go on a quest with his friend Grundy Golem, but Grundy is a known trouble maker, and he doesn't think his parents will approve. So he comes up with a list of companions he thinks they will find even more objectionable, so they will acquiesce to Grundy. It backfires, they approve his first suggestion, and he ends up traveling with animated skeleton Marrow Bones, who's actually a pretty level-headed and reasonable guy.
- In the StarCraft novel Liberty's Crusade, protagonist Michael Liberty, a reporter, does this to mollify the Confederate censors his news bureau reports to. For instance, he runs a report about a colonial Command Center that had been overrun and infested by the then-recently-discovered Zerg Swarm. In order to get his frank descriptions of the aliens and their methods to air, he put in both a pro-Confederate slant (with shots of colonial soldiers bravely mowing down zerglings) and a censor decoy in the form of a mention that the colony post wasn't on any Confederate maps, which he was sure would be cut. While suspicious-sounding at first, this is really a meaningless detail, since Command Centers can lift off and fly.
- Spade calls Wilmer a "gunsel" in The Maltese Falcon. Dashiell Hammett wrote for the Black Mask pulp magazine, whose editor was perhaps a bit too genteel for his post. He would keep rejecting uses of underworld slang as being unfitting for the readership. In one such story, Hammett put a sly test to the editor. Knowing full well what both meant, he included references to "gooseberry lay" (hobo slang for clothes unguarded on a line ripe for theft) and "gunsel" (Yiddish slang for "a young homosexual man kept as an older man's lover"). The editor struck "gooseberry lay", but left in "gunsel," assuming it was an odd way of saying "gunman." Due to it being reused in The Maltese Falcon both book and film, it took on the latter meaning by common usage, even making its way into children's fare such as Batman: The Animated Series.
- The Gong Show regularly offered acts they knew would outrage the censors, so as to get other stuff through. The trick infamously backfired when The Popsicle Twins — two cute girls who sat on stage sucking on popsicles in the most blatantly suggestive way imaginable — actually made it onto the air. (See it here.) The two girls' performance made the live Eastern/Central broadcast, but higher-ups wised up before the Mountain/Pacific showing was due to go on, cutting it from the tape. The incident later made the Gong Show Movie.
- The Wild Wild West: Due to a particularly virulent Media Watchdog situation concerning TV Violence, the creators admitted to staging two versions of a number of fight scenes, one unnecessarily brutal, and the one they actually wanted to show on air, submitting the first one to network censors so they would accept the "compromise" of the second one.
- The Weird Al Show would occasionally try this to get past the insane Executive Meddling the show was put under, only to find that the censors would usually not have any problems with them. This included a clip from Al's "Jurassic Park" music video where Barney the Dinosaur is gruesomely decapitated, and Harvey the hamster crawling out of Al's mouth. Some of the writers claim that the network actually left in the decoys in favor of the stuff it was meant to distract from.
- Star Trek: The Original Series.
- In "A Private Little War" Captain Kirk comes across native girl Nona bathing naked in the river, and we see a brief glimpse of the side of her body as she wraps a robe about herself. The creators included a breast shot knowing the censors would cut it down to the tantalising glimpse they actually wanted.
- A variant was done for the filming of Plato's Stepchildren. The script called for Uhura and Kirk to kiss (commonly and mistakenly referenced as the first scripted, onscreen, interracial kiss on TV at the timenote ), but the network called for the scene to be filmed with and without the kiss, to decide later which to use. William Shatner and Nichelle Nichols deliberately screwed up every take of the non-kiss scene, note making the version with the kiss the best option. The producers were prepared for that: someone mentioned that such a risqué (for the time) scene might get cut short, so they modified the script for the scene to take a lot longer than they intended, so even if the censors would object to it, they could suggest to cut down its length as a compromise. In the end, this wasn't even needed.
- Supernatural writer Sera Gamble outright admitted they over-do the gore and violence in order to get their desired scenes in instead.
- Growing Pains: Ever wondered how Boner got his name? This trope is to blame.
- In Say Yes to the Dress, one bride tried to enact this trope (she wanted 'sexy,' her parents wanted 'modest') by asking for a VERY revealing dress first so that the dresses she actually liked would seem tamer. It sort of worked, though the parents realized fairly quickly that the first dress was a deliberate distraction.
- Brass Eye was made with a lot of censor bait. One of many examples (#3 here): a spoof news report about a male U.S. senator who, during a press conference, gets an overwhelming urge to masturbate in full public view. The actor is seen 'ejaculating' from a prosthetic rubber penis, and his fake semen shoots into the audience. Channel 4's request to the program makers: "blur out the penis". That was all that had to be changed.
- Referenced on Mad Men. When a TV show loses sponsorship for an episode centering on abortion, the Agency has to find new sponsors. How was the episode allowed to be made? The original script featured cannibals.
- On M*A*S*H the writers started regularly including twice as many "Damns" as they wanted, because they knew the censors would always send a note back saying "Cut the number of swears in half".
- With mother Marion's coaching, Joanie tried this on her father on Happy Days. Wanting permission to buy new clothes, she first modeled a halter top and hot pants. Howard predictably blew a gasket, and then approved of the dress she modeled next. Their trick seemed to work—but Howard muttered after they left the room, "I don't know why they do this every time," indicating he was not fooled.
- Ultraseven had a non-censorship variant: when writer Akio Jissoji submitted a script for an episode involving Dan and Soga being stranded on a planet ruled by androids, it was rejected for not featuring any of the show's iconic monster battles. In response, he submitted a script involving Seven fighting 51 different monsters, which would have been horrendously expensive to film on the show's budget. The executives told him he could film his original script instead, which became "Nightmare on Planet 4."
- The Police's first single "Roxanne" was banned by the BBC for being about prostitution, so they tried to publicise that to sell "Can't Stand Losing You". The BBC sidestepped them by banning it due to its cover (Stewart Copeland standing on a block of ice with a noose around his neck), not even bothering to look at the lyrics.
- The radio edit of Lil' Jon's "Get Low" censored the line "To all skeet skeet motherfucker, to all skeet skeet goddamn!" with a repeated "Skeet skeet skeet skeet skeet skeet". "Skeet" is a slang term for semen, and somehow repeating said word multiple times is less explicit than just two skeets and a Precision F-Strike. Eventually averted, as by 2017 or so the radio version has the entire chorus vocals being omitted.
Dave Chappelle: You know what's so dope about "skeet"? White people don't know what it means yet! When they figure it out, they're gonna be like "my God, what have we done?"
- The Kinks managed to do this by accident with "Lola." The BBC was so busy getting them to change the mention of Coca-Cola to cherry cola to comply with their strict rules about product placement that they completely missed the song's meaning.
- In a case of Feature Decoy, veteran pinball designer Greg Kmiec would always put in two new features in every game that he designed for Bally, one that he wanted along with a more expensive decoy. During review, Bally's design executives would inevitably insist on removing the expensive feature, allowing Kmiec's preferred toy to remain.
- An unintentional example from the series I'm Sorry I'll Read That Again. One script featured a reference to a 'cowpoke' which the writers included thinking only of it as an alternative name for a cowboy...but the BBC objected violently to the word. The arguments over this completely overlooked the fact that the script also featured a character called 'Martha Farquar'
- According to Hironobu Sakaguchi, one of the scenario writers for Final Fantasy VII, Motomu Toriyama, kept writing 'tricky little events that kept on being edited', writing scenes full of extreme content that would get toned down to the edgy scenes he wanted. He wrote the Wall Market arc, which is still by a long way the most raunchy subplot ever to be in a Final Fantasy game, but his first draft was far more detailed, about three times as long and involved accidental paedophilia (it's possible for Cloud to obtain Marlene's underwear, although both he and the person who gave them to him are under the impression that they're Tifa's) amongst other highly inappropriate things. When the other team members saw the scene, they all said 'no', and so instead we get Cloud having sex with a male prostitute in a hot tub. The original version is still available on the disc in Dummied Out form, though the script was garbled and was only decoded over a decade later.
- Most of the bleak and dark concept art for Epic Mickey that came from early leaks for the game was created more to test what Disney would allow rather then being intended for usage.
- A really funny and non-offensive variation in Battle Chess by the artist who drew the Queen. He knew he was working with meddlesome executives, and he also knew exactly what he wanted the Queen to look like, how she should move, etc. So he drew her animations exactly like he wanted... And then added a pet duck that made no sense in the context. The executive told him it looked great except the duck had to go, and he ended up with exactly the original design. This led to the coining of the term "Atwood's duck" in computer programming: deliberately adding obvious and easily-removable mistakes, like the duck, for corporate to pick out.
- In Polygon's oral history of The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind, the character designer Michael Kirkbride got frustrated with Todd Howard's complaints that stuff he was doing was 'too weird', and started drawing two alternate versions of every design - one that was the one he wanted to be in the game, and one that was "fucking crazy". He would show the extreme design to Howard, who would ask him to tone it down, then present the real version, which Howard would say was perfect.
- Futurama: The writers use the scene of Fry, Leela, and Amy naked in the same steam room from "Why Must I Be A Crustacean in Love" as an example of how the censors let them get away with that scene in comparison to what's being put on the chopping block. Usually, this argument will result in whatever scene the censors want removed to be left in.
- Batman: The Animated Series:
- Harley Quinn asking Mr. J if he wanted to "rev up his Harley". Though this apparently was the censored version! (As opposed to "Ride On".) The "ride your Harley" joke appears in the "Mad Love" Comic Book that the episode was adapted from. The original version also had her in a more explicit pose; leaning back, knees apart, as if straddling an old fashioned motorcycle.
- In the commentary for one of the episodes, Timm and Dini are chatting and one outright admits that they routinely planted Censor Decoys in their show, only for the other to shush him and tell him not to reveal trade secrets.
- When designing swimsuits for Azula and Ty Lee in Avatar: The Last Airbender's obligatory beach episode, the artists intentionally created designs that were far too revealing to be used in the actual show. When the censors shot down these original designs, they were "redesigned" into the swimsuits they had intended to use to begin with—which were still risqué, but not as much. Naturally, the censors allowed the new ones through.
- Shown in the page image, the episode "Wizard" of Adventure Time had Finn, Jake, and two old men are caught in an explosion that burns their clothing off. Originally, they were going to have Finn and the old men walking around with a beaver censoring their crotches. Cartoon Network thought the beaver Gag Censor was too racy and opted for something better — in this case, wooden logs (which may seem silly until you realize that "wood" has long been used as a euphemism for male erections).
- Animaniacs got away with many of their adult jokes by using this tactic, according to the creators in The Nostalgia Critic's Animaniacs Trbute. With the infamous "fingerprints" bit, the show's writer admitted it was thrown in just to give the censor a laugh but apparently (somehow) got through:
We put that in, and just said "you know, let the censor have a laugh and call us". I guess the censor was away that week (starts laughing) because that's still in there!
- In Yin Yang Yo!, co-writer Steve Marmel has stated that in one instance where Yang gets a wedgie, the original quote was, "Oww! My boy parts!" That was turned down by Disney and replaced by "Oww! My undercarriage!"
- In The Penguins of Madagascar episode "Antics on Ice" Skipper is trying to come up with a reason that he and Kowalski were absent while Private was watching the show. Kowalski mimes (behind Private's back) what he should tell Private. Kowalski is wildly slapping his body with his flippers. Skipper interprets this as what sounds like "touching ourselves?" or seems to. Many argue that he's saying "punching ourselves?". Sound effects muffled the line as did Skipper's usual style of enunciation.
- It's said that South Park does this on a regular basis. Supposedly they shove in an incredibly offensive clip that has no chance of airing on regular TV and isn't even part of the regular script just to desensitize the review board to the rest of the episode.
- My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic:
- A rare inverted version comes from Lauren Faust figuring that Hasbro wouldn't want the monsters to be too scary for a young girls' show, so she submitted drawings of an incredibly goofy-looking manticore and dainty, feminine dragons. Hasbro's response was that they weren't scary enough, and pushed for more menacing creature designs.
- An example played straight might have happened with Season 8, episode 13 "The Mean 6". In the leaked version, there is a scene where the "mean" versions of the Mane 6 are turned back into wood, and the melting looks very creepy. In the final version, the creepiness is dialed back a bit.
- In the development of My Little Pony: The Movie (2017), this was done to develop Klugetown, as revealed in the official art book. In order to get the version that was in the final film — a Not-So-Safe Harbor the mane six encounter where where outsiders are either sold to the Slave Market or dismembered and have their body parts sold — they had to dial the look and tone of the location to such an extreme that what they wanted to go for seemed comparatively tame. The version they presented and Hasbro had them tone down was a town built around a giant dragon skeleton with the inhabitants mining the dragon's crystalized heart.
- Family Guy had an inversion in "Mr. Saturday Knight". The original version had a joke about "half and half", which the censors cracked down on. It was replaced with the more vulgar "Cleveland steamer", which got past because they thought the writers made the term up. note
- In the Looney Tunes cartoon An Itch in Time, about a dog tormented by a flea, one scene has the itching dog scooting across the floor on his butt, then turn to the camera and say "Hey, I'd better cut this out, I may get to likin' it!" Reportedly, this was done by Bob Clampett to give The Hays Code something to cut, but they didn't.