The Challenge of Ethical Copywriting
For those who don’t know much about me, you probably don’t know that I do copywriting for a living. This is partially technical and partially-marketing focused, but at the end of the day, most of my work is designed to entice people to view, purchase, or otherwise become aware of a certain product.
But how do I make that ethical?
Ethics is a difficult thing to discuss, because it isn’t a solid set of rules. One person might argue that the act of any manipulation, no matter how minor, is something that goes beyond ethical bounds. To others, it doesn’t matter as long as the manipulation is being used in a constructive way, such as guiding people towards a service that they actively want. More still might think that any sort of marketing is ethical because it’s making use of the capitalist system that we all exist in.
For me, I’m not really sure where to place it on that ladder. As somebody who doesn’t really have much love for capitalism, but also makes full use of the benefits it can bring, it’s difficult to place myself on one particular pedestal and argue that my way is the correct way.
Copywriting and Links as Marketing
There are two ways to look at marketing: as a tool to earn money, or as a tool to spread awareness. In the former case, it’s very easy to argue that copywriting as a marketing option is a bad thing, because it uses careful word choices and keyword-based links to try and push a customer towards a profitable outcome. If you go looking for some shoes, for example, it’s very easy to find articles that promote shoes you otherwise wouldn’t have heard of.
On its own, this is not a bad thing, but the nature of marketing can make it bad. Being told that the shoes exist? That’s perfectly fine, no different to walking down a street and seeing a shop sign on one of the buildings – if you have an immediate need for the product in question, then you’re likely to be relieved that one is right there for you to purchase.
But… is that okay? After all, in the initial context, the person was looking for shoes, and therefore it isn’t necessarily a bad thing that they were given sponsored links or paid content placements that directed them to another option. They’re the one who puts that money down, and that means that the purchase is their responsibility. Well, that’s how it might seem.
The issue with copywriting is that, like all forms of marketing, there’s no guarantee that you’ll be given the truth. I personally do a lot of research into the products I write about or the services that I have to cover, which has ranged from furniture to medical equipment, and I never settle for a single source when writing an article. Even still, if you look at content that promotes gambling sites or some other for-profit piece of entertainment, can you really tell if it’s being truthful at first?
Google’s algorithm for having links heavily focuses on accuracy and relevance. I’ve seen this before myself: the first SEO agency I worked with had a client whose site was entirely build on paid irrelevant backlinks, meaning that a single SEO spider could have invalidated over 200 links that were holding their site up in the search results. With copywriting, it’s very much the same: if the link text and the article it’s from don’t match with the page the link is going to, then expect to have both sites possibly flagged.
Here's the problem, though: SEO isn’t copywriting. The two are intertwined, but it’s very possible to need copywriting and not care about the SEO element. In that context, there’s nothing stopping a site from having a paid article that completely misrepresents the product in question. I could write a fake article claiming that Product X cured cancer or that increased my phone’s battery life by 500%, and there isn’t any practical barriers from stopping it.
With marketing on television, billboards, or even in newspapers and professional websites, it’s very difficult to get a falsified or misrepresented article in there without being blacklisted. There’s a good reason that the Truth in Advertising Act and the Advertising Standards Authority Regulations exist, and it’s to protect people from being tricked through blatantly deceptive advertising.
Honesty in Advertising
While I do copywriting for a vast range of different subjects and companies, I always put truth before anything else. This might mean that I’m not going to be hired by certain companies, especially those that want to lie in the name of profit, but that’s part of the reason I wanted to write this post in the first place. Copywriting isn’t inherently moral or immoral, but heavily revolves around the ethics of the person writing it, followed by the person who then edits it (if they aren’t the same person).
The problem is, not all clients feel that way. There have been times where the spec for a task has included “avoid mentioning the negatives” or “focus on (positive aspect) and ignore (negative aspect)”. In those situations, what do I do? Do I refuse the task and potentially never work with that company again, or do I power through it and try to tweak things against their wishes?
This gets even harder with companies that I don’t personally agree with, such as gambling ones. I’ve had to write copy for gambling sites before, which has included research into the way that gambling games work, and I’ve always walked away feeling a bit unsettled that I’m contributing to people getting addicted to gambling as a whole. So, what can I really do to change that?
Well, I figured that honest was going to be the best way, especially when the article addresses people that are new to said product.
For example, in many of my pieces covering a specific gambling game I’ve mentioned the RTP (Return to Player) values when they’ve been lower than average, then explained what that means. I don’t want to keep people away from that client’s business, but I want them to understand that a lower RTP means a lower chance to potentially make their money back. I want to inform people of the risks and the downsides but still produce the article the client wants from me.
Copywriting and Links as a Service
This feeds into the issue that copywriting and links can be a useful tool for the customer as well. I might not want to get people interested in gambling, but if a customer is already dead-set on gambling no matter what, then my article is going to be nothing but positive for them. I don’t want to work for soulless and community-damaging groups like Nestlé, but there are customers who will want to purchase something from Nestlé regardless. In these situations, my copywriting is a service, not a marketing tool.
For example, say I’m asked to write something like “Top 10 Nestlé products”. For me, writing that supports the marketing of a company that has actively harmed babes, used trafficked child labour, and even tried to force the famine-stricken country of Ethiopia to pay them a six-million-dollar debt. For a person who simply likes the company’s many food and drink products, though, they’re just going to want to find out which one many people consider the best, and I can’t insert information like that into an article.
I feel like it’s best to make my content and copywriting a service for the customer, not the company that wants it. The job of a marketer is simply to sell a product, but I want to try and keep myself above that baseline for a long as possible by educating the people that read my work. I’ve done it many times with health products, subtly pointing out that many weight loss products only work when combined with exercise and that effort is required to get actual results from them.
I can’t justify my job as being a moral bastion, because it isn’t, and there are times where I’ve gone to sleep feeling somewhat awful because I know that I’ve had to gently nudge the truth to keep a client happy. My only connection to that product is the nature of the copy that I’ve written for it, but that doesn’t excuse the fact that my involvement could have made a dozen people waste money or something that they don’t actually need. I don’t want to be the snake oil salesman of the internet age.
That being said, a lot of them are almost entirely a service. My articles on things like removing ant nests or getting rid of old furniture might have contained links to product pages and company websites, but they’re a service first and foremost, explaining how a certain thing can be done or what options are available. The marketing element is a small link near the end of the article, something that I’m sure people will only click on if they’re already prepared to pay for the thing in question.
I know my limits.
Is that self-destructive in a capitalist society? Potentially, yes, especially if I don’t start branching out and approaching more companies directly instead of working for one agency at a time. I’m going to make mistakes, and there are going to be times where I end up writing for a product that I feel bad about, but I’m prepared to have my boundaries set in the future.
There’s no such thing as a perfect company, and no company is your friend, but there are definitely many companies that are more honest than others. As I get older and have more experience under my belt (as well as a desirable portfolio that allows me to throw some more weight around), these boundaries will get less and less malleable.
For other people, perhaps the opposite is true. Some people might simply not care as long as they get paid, and while I don’t really agree with that, it’s hard to argue with the logic involved. Money makes the world go round, like it or hate it, and that won’t change without some serious political shifts in multiple countries at the same time.
It’s my responsibility – and everybody’s responsibility, in my fairly irrelevant opinion – to know their ethical limits, because work without ethics is hardly work at all. The line between marketing and outright manipulation is already blurred, and without any sort of ethics to keep you pinned down, we drift closer towards those fictional super-capitalist futures you see in sci-fi works where every element of life is somehow monetized.
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Hi! I'm Thomas.
I'm a mostly-full-time freelance writer who's also working towards being published!
Read more about me on the About Thomas page, or follow/visit me on Twitter.