Copywriters: Guilty as Charged?

After reading my post about Internet Marketing on Life Support, a reader sent me a private email. He writes:

As copywriters do we (as a profession) play a part in the current situation? People buy (are lured) into bad situations with these scammers based on what they read on the sales page… which nine times out of ten is written by a copywriter. (A high level IM “goo-roo” is going to go to a high level wordsmith to create the most persuasive sales letter possible.)

Are we guilty of creating the hype by virtue of what we write?

Do we as a profession need to be more conscientious about who we do business with? Should we be asking for proof that the client can provide the backup to the persuasive story we create?

Would love to hear your opinions. Love the blog and keep up the good work.

I must confess: I’ve had similar thoughts myself. How much responsibility do copywriters share for the current state of Internet marketing — and advertising in general?

Certainly, copywriters have helped the market along. Copywriters have stoked the fires of desire. Copywriters have helped sell products of dubious value.

But are copywriters to blame?

Well, here’s my perspective:

Scenario #1: Client Defrauds Customers

If I write copy for a product that is still in development, the client uses my copy to start taking orders, and then fails to deliver the product to his customers… that’s not my problem.

Certainly, I’d be upset if this happened to me. But it’s beyond my control. I can’t know in advance whether or not my client is going to follow through with product creation and fulfillment.

Obviously, the best thing to do in this case is to stop writing for a client like this once you discover his true colors.

Scenario #2: Client Lies to the Copywriter

If I use a client’s story to help make the sale, but my client has lied about his story, then that is not my problem.

The reader asked if we should be asking for proof of what a client tells us. In theory, it sounds like a good idea. But it’s hard to put into practice.

First of all, there has to be an element of trust between the copywriter and the client. If this trust isn’t there to begin with, then that’s a problem.

Secondly, what kind of proof could a client offer to prove his story?

Assume for a moment I was your client, and I told you that I began my freelance copywriting career on June 13, 2005. How would I prove that to you? It’s not like I have a notarized letter saying that that’s the day I began freelance copywriting.

Anyway, my point is that you have to trust your clients and that they’re telling you the truth. It’s a requirement for a good business relationship. And most life experiences don’t come with supporting documentation — so it would be hard to prove a client’s story anyway.

Scenario #3: Business Shenanigans

If I write sales copy that accurately reflects the product I’m selling, but there are shenanigans going on behind the scenes (for instance, affiliates not being paid, speakers not being paid, lawsuits between partners, etc.), that’s not my problem either.

My job as a copywriter is to write copy that sells without being deceptive. Half the time, clients intentionally keep copywriters in the dark about problems happening inside the business.

I’ve experienced this firsthand. It wasn’t until later — sometimes much later — that I discovered the extent of the problems.

Again, the best thing to do when you discover there are unethical business practices is to simply move on. (For extra credit, you might want to privately warn other copywriters about the bad apples you’ve had the misfortune of dealing with.)

Scenario #4: Willful Promotion of Crap

If I write sales copy for a product or service that I know up front is crap… or if I write copy for a client who I know in advance is neither honest nor ethical… then that is definitely a problem. In a way, this makes me an accomplice.

Of course, every copywriter is going to have a different definition of “crap” and “unethical.” For instance, I have personal beliefs that inform what I think is good, bad, etc. But everybody’s moral compass has a slightly different true north.

What I consider bad, another copywriter may consider good. And vice versa. The key, I think, is to only promote products or services you believe are genuinely valuable to the target market.

What Do You Think?

At the end of the day, copywriters are hired guns. We’re hired to complete a specific task: write persuasive sales copy.

We have a measure of control over what products we’ll promote and which clients we’ll work for. But what the client chooses to do after the copy is written is really out of our control.

What do you think? Leave a comment below and let me know.

-Ryan M. Healy

Ryan M. Healy

Ryan Healy is a financial copywriter and the author of Speed Writing for Nonfiction Writers. Since 2002, he has worked with scores of clients, including Agora Financial, Lombardi Publishing, and Contrarian Profits. He writes a popular blog about copywriting, advertising, and business growth, has been featured in publications like Feed Front magazine, and has been published on sites like WordStream.com, SmallBizClub.com, and MarketingForSuccess.com.

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