About Copywriting Ethics ...

by Raydal 31 replies
Like in any other profession, copywriters are often faced with
ethical choices. These ethical choices by nature do not lend
themselves to black and white options. If every choice was as
clear-cut as this, then there would be no need to discuss the
ethics of copywriting since every copywriter would know what's
'right' and 'wrong'.

One of the most basic choices is that of telling the truth. At
first appearance you may say it is obvious that the
copywriter should always tell the truth but what is telling the
truth?


One answer to this questions is that you should always tell the
truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. This means that
irrespective of the consequences you should give the plain facts
to your readers. This reminds me a "Help Wanted" ad reportedly
ran in a London paper around 1900, which read:

"Men wanted for hazardous journey. Small wages, bitter cold, long
months of complete darkness, constant danger, safe return
doubtful. Honor and recognition in case of success. Ernest
Shackleton."


It is claimed that this ad for Shackleton's Polar expedition had
a surprisingly high response.

Now for discussion:

You're approached as a copywriter to sell a product that once
worked very well but is now losing it's effectiveness because
of a recent change, say in how the search engines rank sites.

The product creator has a history of very good results and
testimonials from customers--PROOF. Should you go ahead
and write this sales letter knowing that the method doesn't
work as well as it used to but using the former results as
evidence?

Let us know what you think ...

-Ray Edwards
#copywriting #copywriting #ethics
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  • Profile picture of the author CDarklock
    Originally Posted by Raydal View Post

    You're approached as a copywriter to sell a product that once worked very well but is now losing it's effectiveness because of a recent change, say in how the search engines rank sites.

    The product creator has a history of very good results and testimonials from customers--PROOF. Should you go ahead and write this sales letter knowing that the method doesn't work as well as it used to but using the former results as evidence?
    Of course I'd write it. Isn't this just scarcity and a damaging admission on a silver platter?

    These customers had great success, but the search engines are constantly changing. Already, the methods used to make these returns are losing their effectiveness - and if you delay much longer, they may not work at all. For a limited time... and nobody can say how limited... these methods will still work, and you can still get real results. That's why the price has been dramatically reduced, so you can have your piece of that success before it's gone. If you aren't going to use it right now... before Google and the other engines close it down forever... it's not for you. But if you're going to grab this chance with both hands, and make it work for you now, you can get your piece of the dream.

    There's always a fine line. You want to paint the product in the best possible light, and at the same time you want to tell the truth. Shine the light. Spin your approach. The bald-faced truth is refreshing.
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    • Our job is to sell the product to our best ability.

      That said...

      Lying would be bad. It's a no no... and usually the sign of a weak writer.

      Accentuating the positive and downplaying the negative... that's what we're paid for.

      The only reason I see to point out a negative (other than when legally required) is if that negative can be used as a selling point. Whether the frankness can be seen as a credibility builder.
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      • Profile picture of the author Intrepreneur
        Don't lie for him Ray!

        Lying isn't the way to sell!

        I despise lies, totally despise em. I tell the truth even when I don't want to although it's not often people ask questions that I am not wanting to answer.

        This is not a open case for anyone to ask me anything they want :p
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        • Profile picture of the author Collette
          I'd say it depends on what the product creator is asking you to say.

          Do they want you to position the product as though it still works as effectively as it once did, and present your pitch as though nothing has changed?

          Or are they fine with you pitching the product for its existing benefits and strengths - while downplaying its weaknesses?

          If your testimonials are being presented as "results from users", without reference to a timeframe, you wouldn't be lying. If you're not comfortable with that (and I totally understand why you might not be), I would recommend that you ask the client to give you the latest results, and let you work your word wizardry on them.

          Just my 2c...

          Added after reading the above:

          If they're asking you to sell something that does NOT work, I think the ethics of that are pretty obvious.
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  • Profile picture of the author Raydal
    Wow ... let me see. Maybe I didn't make the case clear enough.

    Here goes. I find many marketers who would start selling their
    "secret methods" after they stop working. So they have a ton
    of good results but they know that the prospect can never do
    as well because the market has changed (or whatever has changed
    which make this method obsolete.)

    Should I still go ahead and write this promotion knowing that the
    prospect CANNOT do as well? The method doesn't work anymore.
    Should I still sell it?

    -Ray Edwards
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    • Aaah, the clarification changes my answer. This is a situation where you know the stuff doesn't work. Kinda like how a lawyer needs to push for his client's innocence no matter what. But how that's much easier for him/her when he/she doesn't know you're guilty.

      My new answer is screw him.

      Say no. There are far too many honest clients out there.

      Originally Posted by Raydal View Post

      Wow ... let me see. Maybe I didn't make the case clear enough.

      Here goes. I find many marketers who would start selling their
      "secret methods" after they stop working. So they have a ton
      of good results but they know that the prospect can never do
      as well because the market has changed (or whatever has changed
      which make this method obsolete.)

      Should I still go ahead and write this promotion knowing that the
      prospect CANNOT do as well? The method doesn't work anymore.
      Should I still sell it?

      -Ray Edwards
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    • Profile picture of the author CDarklock
      Originally Posted by Raydal View Post

      Should I still go ahead and write this promotion knowing that the prospect CANNOT do as well? The method doesn't work anymore. Should I still sell it?
      "Cannot do as well" is one thing.

      "Cannot do squat" is another.

      Your selling proposition is different in each case, and your audience is different in each case. Clearly, you also can't expect as many sales from an honest "cannot do squat" sales letter.
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      "The Golden Town is the Golden Town no longer. They have sold their pillars for brass and their temples for money, they have made coins out of their golden doors. It is become a dark town full of trouble, there is no ease in its streets, beauty has left it and the old songs are gone." - Lord Dunsany, The Messengers
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      • Profile picture of the author Intrepreneur
        How sure are you it doesn't work?

        Hasn't he got an updated method he can put together?

        Can he provide updates if it's an ever changing process?

        If he can't do any of these, then personally I wouldn't write for it. It would only be a negative thing to do!
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    • Profile picture of the author maximus242
      Originally Posted by Raydal View Post

      I'm not sure about the legal responsibility you assume for the copy
      as per your agreement, but I suspect that you can be implied
      as helping this person commit fraud.

      Again, I'm not a lawyer, but I know the copywriter holds some responsbility
      for what he writes for his clients. Even though you didn't write the
      testimonials, you should frown upon your copy being used in this way.

      BUT ... this would depend on your agreement with the client.

      -Ray Edwards
      They were going to go after Clayton when he sold rare coins but didnt because he quit working for the client before the alphabet agencies got involved. He even wrote a letter denouncing the client and his practices. So they didnt bother him.

      Halbert said the clients the only one responsible but personally I wouldnt bother working with scum bags. I would just make my own product and blow the f*cker out of the water with truly world class copy.

      My experience has taught me even being around shifty people brings you down financially, mentally and emotionally.

      As Clayton Makepeace said on making these kinds of decisions "Do the right thing"

      Taking projects like these is bad juju, not only does Karma come after you... John Nash's Nobel Prize Winning Game Theory proved that Karma exists, Win/Win always benefits you more than Win/Lose

      But it will also make your copy look bad.

      "A gifted product is better than a gifted pen"

      There wont be any conviction in your copy either.

      Which means your copy has a high chance of failing before you have even written a word of copy.

      What you should do is write a proposal telling your client to beef up his product so it works like gang busters again. Your a copywriter, sell him. Show him how doing what you want (making the product uber awesome again) will give him what he wants (money).

      So you can keep the project and do whats right.

      This post is absent of any legal advice whatsoever. This is for entertainment only and should not be construed as advice.
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      • Profile picture of the author Bill Jeffels
        The name of the copywriter escapes me. It may of been in DM News.

        A copywriter wrote a DM diet ad. The ad was for a diet pill and it was a home run. The diet compnay was fined and the copywriter was also held accountable.

        To my knowledge the copywriter being held responsible is rare.

        Some of the copywriters I admire have wrote the biggest diet ads in the last 10 years. My favourite copywriter has wrote some of the biggest diet ads in the last 25 years.

        Some were questionable.

        Bill
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  • Profile picture of the author The Copy Nazi
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    Ah come on Ray...this is what we call a "Dorothy Dix" question in parliament. You know the answer already. And what you're touting is called "flogging a dead horse". Personally I won't write for any product that I don't believe in. True. I think it comes out in the copy if you're "pushing it".
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    • Profile picture of the author marciayudkin
      Should I still go ahead and write this promotion knowing that the
      prospect CANNOT do as well? The method doesn't work anymore.
      Should I still sell it?
      Ray,

      You've already answered your question. It comes through loud and clear that you think this is wrong.

      So say no.

      Marcia Yudkin
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      • Profile picture of the author Raydal
        Originally Posted by marciayudkin View Post

        Ray,

        You've already answered your question. It comes through loud and clear that you think this is wrong.

        So say no.

        Marcia Yudkin
        Hi Marcia,

        I know my answer. I was asking for yours [generic].

        -Ray Edwards
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    • Profile picture of the author Raydal
      Originally Posted by Metronicity View Post

      Ah come on Ray...this is what we call a "Dorothy Dix" question in parliament. You know the answer already. And what you're touting is called "flogging a dead horse". Personally I won't write for any product that I don't believe in. True. I think it comes out in the copy if you're "pushing it".
      There is no "answer". Every copywriter would respond differently to the
      situation. And that's the point of the post.

      As a copywriter you really can't "prove" everything the client tells you.
      For example, some time ago I wrote for a brain entrainment product.
      For me the concept was new and I went with what the client said
      were 'scientific' results. Personally I wouldn't use the product, but
      this didn't prevent me from writing the sales copy because believe
      it did work for those who claimed it did.

      Every trading (stock market) product must include that disclaimer
      that what worked in the past may not work in the future, but we
      still see sales letters for new trading products every day.

      I once bought a $3,000 product based on the evidence the creator
      had made a ton of money using this script, only to discover later
      that he was selling it because it was losing it's effectiveness.
      He knew that the script was at the end of its lifetime but
      wanted to get as much out of his investment as possible.

      So this happens all the time.

      -Ray Edwards
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  • Profile picture of the author CDarklock
    Originally Posted by Matt Jutras View Post

    Has anyone ever been asked by a client to write fake testimonials for a product?
    Yes.

    Turned it down.

    Was told that if I wouldn't do it, he'd hire someone who would.

    Really needed the money.

    Said no anyway.

    I never need money that much.
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    "The Golden Town is the Golden Town no longer. They have sold their pillars for brass and their temples for money, they have made coins out of their golden doors. It is become a dark town full of trouble, there is no ease in its streets, beauty has left it and the old songs are gone." - Lord Dunsany, The Messengers
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    • Profile picture of the author Matt James
      Has anyone ever been asked by a client to write fake testimonials for a product? I recently had this happen...and I have to admit that I was taken aback by it.
      Yep... and for a weight loss product too.

      I didn't do it obviously but the client just added some himself :rolleyes:
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      • Profile picture of the author Raydal
        Originally Posted by Matt James View Post

        Yep... and for a weight loss product too.

        I didn't do it obviously but the client just added some himself :rolleyes:
        I'm not sure about the legal responsibility you assume for the copy
        as per your agreement, but I suspect that you can be implied
        as helping this person commit fraud.

        Again, I'm not a lawyer, but I know the copywriter holds some responsbility
        for what he writes for his clients. Even though you didn't write the
        testimonials, you should frown upon your copy being used in this way.

        BUT ... this would depend on your agreement with the client.

        -Ray Edwards
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  • Profile picture of the author Kevin Lam
    I personally would not write it if I had that knowledge of the product. It's no different than selling a broken laptop to some body although I can prove having a laptop is essential to their business. Yeah, it's essential, but once they get it and find out it doesn't work, what good is it to them?

    If a marketer is trusting the person to use an outdated system that doesn't work anymore, that in turn could actually build a very negative reputation for them. The money is not worth it for either the client or the copywriter.

    Anyway, what I would do is actually work with the client on a deal to FIX the product and improve it. Perhaps have him go back and add some more high quality methods to it to make the product worth it.
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  • Profile picture of the author Dainis
    If the client is willing to improve the product and you have a good sense for the ethics of the client, then OK.

    ...we are on top of all of the latest SEO trends and are constantly tweaking our software so that YOU get the best results.

    Otherwise, under no circumstances would I take on a project like this.
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  • Profile picture of the author BrianMcLeod
    Ethics is a topic that's easy to pike in public conversation.

    "I'd never...", "I won't...", "You shouldn't..."

    It's usually not quite that cut and dried out there in the wild.

    This post will probably be perceived inaccurately and cast me
    in an unfairly negative light, but I don't care... it's true.

    I have some clients I consider friends whom I also acknowledge as
    being what Ben Mack calls "Financial Sociopaths". They are typically
    good hearted people in "real life", but utterly ruthless in business
    with no qualms whatsoever about doing whatever it takes to bring
    in the maximum daily dollars they can.

    That doesn't mean they are out to scam people. It means that they
    are out to make money and they are not particularly interested in
    the outcome for the customers beyond the way in which it affects
    their own bottom line. Refunds are bad because they cost $, not
    because customer was dissatisfied.

    I view managing that aspect of the client and their business to be
    a significant portion of my "service" to them. Risk assessment.
    Compliance. Smart long-term vision..

    Read "Throwing The Elephant" by Stanley Bing sometime. It's a
    truly transformative book disguised as a fun, light read.

    Amazon.com: Throwing the Elephant: Zen and the...Amazon.com: Throwing the Elephant: Zen and the...
    To be specific to Ray's question of how I'd handle a client with an
    aging technology product that is going the way of the do-do bird...

    Off the top of my head, I'd probably do much like Caliban suggested
    and pound on the urgency of getting in before the enemy (search
    engines) close the loophole for good.

    I'd price the offer with an automatic discount into a new upcoming
    product that will address this issue. And I'd offer personal support
    to ensure that the buyer could put the technology to work immediately,
    before it's too late.

    I'd deliver that support through training series for customers only
    discussing all the problems and why the tech is waning - preselling
    what the client is going to be doing about it and promising very
    special VIP access to it as a buyer of the product in hospice.

    All of that presupposes that I care about having this client as a client.

    Somebody off the street with no history? No thanks, I'll pass.

    Best,

    Brian
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  • Profile picture of the author dtendrich
    Originally Posted by Matt Jutras View Post

    Has anyone ever been asked by a client to write fake testimonials for a product?
    I did it once, and regretted it even as I did it. But I learned that that's something I'm not willing to do anymore, and that I can assert myself to my client and set boundaries. I value the experience.

    At the same time, like Brian's saying, I appreciate the complexity that comes with life. And I think this grand complexity is a bit too much for me to pin down with a single word like "good" or "bad", "ethical" or "unethical", "right" or "wrong". I just do my best to stay true to what I intuitively feel - but I've been known to stray now and then. Every time I do I just do my best to get back on course, and learn.

    David
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    • Profile picture of the author CDarklock
      Originally Posted by bond007 View Post

      If you are too honest, then the conversion rate will be too low..
      There is no such thing as "too honest." Either what you said is true, or it is not. If you're not sure whether it's true, it almost certainly isn't.
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      "The Golden Town is the Golden Town no longer. They have sold their pillars for brass and their temples for money, they have made coins out of their golden doors. It is become a dark town full of trouble, there is no ease in its streets, beauty has left it and the old songs are gone." - Lord Dunsany, The Messengers
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      • Profile picture of the author dtendrich
        Originally Posted by CDarklock View Post

        There is no such thing as "too honest." Either what you said is true, or it is not. If you're not sure whether it's true, it almost certainly isn't.
        I think truth is extremely relative, and a bit more complex than "true or false". For instance, if you write about how much the hybrid engine helps the environment because you use less gas, you could say that's the truth. You could say "I am being truthful - I am being extremely honest - I am just reporting the facts."

        Until someone comes along and points out... "Well, it still uses gas, and thus, still harms the environment and still supports gas companies, meaning it looks like it helps the environment on the outside, but really it's like diet coke... it still has no nutritional value, just less sugar and carbs..."
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        • Profile picture of the author Hugh Thyer
          I saw a post on elance and the client wanted testimonials written too. I sure passed on that one, but plenty of people were bidding. Should have dobbed him in actually. There's a grey area and then there's just plain wrong.

          I saw a sales letter online once that had a scanned in newspaper with an article on the guy. Only thing was he said it was in the Sunday paper, but when I looked up the date on the paper it turns out it was a Wednesday. Total fake. I hope the guy did really badly.
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        • Profile picture of the author CDarklock
          Originally Posted by dtendrich View Post

          I think truth is extremely relative
          There is a very large difference between what is "true" and what is "truth."

          When you say the car is "good for the environment" - that is not true. It is an opinion. The truth may be that the car is bad for the environment. Or, on the other hand, maybe what you said is true. But just maybe.

          If you say the car has features to protect the environment, that is true. Nobody can say "that car does not have features to protect the environment," because it does. What you have said is true. Completely, totally, unequivocally true.

          If there is doubt, it is not true. Say it in a way that there can be no doubt.
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          "The Golden Town is the Golden Town no longer. They have sold their pillars for brass and their temples for money, they have made coins out of their golden doors. It is become a dark town full of trouble, there is no ease in its streets, beauty has left it and the old songs are gone." - Lord Dunsany, The Messengers
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          • Profile picture of the author dtendrich
            Originally Posted by CDarklock View Post

            If you say the car has features to protect the environment, that is true. Nobody can say "that car does not have features to protect the environment," because it does. What you have said is true. Completely, totally, unequivocally true.
            I see where you're coming from, but I still don't think that makes it unequivocally true. Let me show you why...

            If someone were to say, "This atomic bomb only affects a 10 sq. mi. radius instead of a 50 sq. mi. radius, therefore it has features that protect humanity."

            Compared to the other atomic bomb it does, but in the bigger picture, it obviously kills people, even if it's people in a 40 sq. mi.-less radius. So does it have features that protect humanity?

            Or back to our car example:

            "This car pollutes 30% less than other cars." ..But it still pollutes, so how does that protect the environment? I see how you could argue that it does, but I think that argument is subjective to the fact that other cars pollute more. If other cars ran off of oxygen and patched holes in the ozone layer, then the Prius would be seen as the worst car imaginable. Therefore, the "true" statement that the Prius protects the environment is subjective.

            The only "unequivocally true" statement about the Prius would then be:

            "Compared to other cars the Prius protects the environment"

            But then you could dissect the word "protects" and say that this statement is still not true... But that's a philosophical funnel I don't feel like diving into

            David
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            David Tendrich
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  • Profile picture of the author Dainis
    the ethics of coca-cola are a very interesting litmus test. i find coke unethical.
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  • Profile picture of the author Daniel Scott
    Brian... excellent post (as usual).

    Here's my take on it... we all have our limits.

    Do you point out the positives and play down the negatives?

    Do you embellish stories? Heck, do you CREATE stories to sell?

    Do you use a pen name?

    Do you intentionally omit certain facts that may change the prospect's mind?

    Do you intentionally make a product sound like it's easy and simple to use... when in fact it may not be?

    Throw in the fact that everyone has a different perception of reality (look at the "features vs. benefits" thread for proof of that) and you have a thousand gray areas to think about.

    Personally, I won't write for a product I don't think will bring significant value into a prospect's life. Other copywriters figure that "that's what refund requests are for", or "its not my place to make that decision".

    I'm not saying any of us are right or wrong... there's pros and cons (both ethically and otherwise) for each argument.

    All I'm saying is that IMHO you have to find what YOU are comfortable doing... be able to sleep at night... and go with that.

    -Dan

    P.S. I realize this is only somewhat connected to the OP... and I apologize for that.
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