Copywriting Ethics – Manipulation or Persuasion?

Copywriting EthicsMany years ago I used to teach business ethics to government employees. Ethics is a world where you soon discover that black and white really is just a continuum of shades of grey. And while some things are clearly seen as sitting on the unethical end of the continuum, (taking bribes for example), other areas in business are not quite as easy to place on the scale.

Master Manipulators

When you think of people who manipulate others to achieve their ends, the words liar, cheat, fraudster come to mind.

Unscrupulous salespeople spend a small fortune learning the tricks of master manipulators to get people to buy their products or services. They enrol in weekend workshops in Neuro-Linguistic Programming, trying to work out how to rapidly build rapport and put people into a hypnotic trance to agree to anything.

They are only driven by the desire to sell their product or service – even if they don’t believe in it themselves, and their only intention is to make as much money as possible.

On the business ethical scale – this sort of behaviour is heading into dark territory. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with the tools they are learning and using. The problem is the intent behind the use of the tools.

Their intent is to build up the self – at the cost of the other. The salespeople in this scenario only look to the next sale and the money it will bring, and not what the client really wants or needs.

Gentle Persuaders

Let’s take a slightly different scenario. A business owner deeply believes in their product or service. They believe they make a difference to their clients, and their greatest goal is to build supportive relationships with their clients that extend over many years.

A prospect is in front of them – someone that has been referred to them by an existing client. This prospect has been the one to initiate contact with the business. They are interested in the service that the business offers, but they are not really sure about the price or what to expect from the service.

The business owner then attempts to persuade the prospect by honestly sharing the facts and benefits of their service, through applying the persuasion skills they have learned in weekend business development workshops.

Most people see this as totally acceptable business ethics. Why? Because the intent behind the application of the persuasion skills is to serve the other person.

But what if the business owner is mistaken. What if their belief in their product or service is misplaced, or if they are only seeing the benefit to the other person through their own lens of reality? At what point does persuasion cross over into manipulation?

The line between persuasion and manipulation is a very fine line indeed. This ethical dilemma is one that every business owner has to face every day. At what point does their marketing tread into unethical business practices territory?

Copywriting Ethics – Questions to Help Make Ethical Marketing Decisions

Here are a few questions that may help you walk that narrow ethical line:

  • What is my intent in my relationship with this client?
  • Is my approach breaking any laws?
  • Have I told the truth (or have I obscured or left out key facts)?
  • Is there genuine consent of the person affected by the decision?
  • Does the person have enough knowledge and information to make an informed decision?
  • Can I prove the claims I am making?
  • Do I have the skills and experience to deliver what the client needs and wants?
  • Will I deliver a fair return for the client’s investment?

Ethics in Copywriting

When I work with my copywriting clients, I go through these questions before accepting the brief, and while writing the copy for my clients. My goal is to ensure all of my client’s copy sits firmly at the ethical end of the ethical continuum. I believe in ethical copywriting.

I go into bat for my copywriting clients – to be their best advocate and to clearly, and without fluff or flounce, to honestly tell their story about what makes their business great.

And I do not manipulate the words I choose, or use psychological tools in a negative way simply to get a monetary outcome for my clients. I want to find them clients for the next decade – not simply the next sale.

So, how do you walk the fine line between manipulation and persuasion in your business? I would love to hear your stories.

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Ingrid Cliff

Ingrid Cliff is the Chief Word Wizard (aka copywriter) with Heart Harmony Communications.With over a decade of experience in internet marketing combined with a degree in psychology, Ingrid leverages the power of words to create change and get results. Ingrid also provides one-on-one mentoring to small businesses.
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  • Pauline

    That really makes me feel better, Ingrid – thank you.

    I recently attended a sales course, where we were constantly told that “we’re leaving money on the table”… other sales people who say things like “by not selling them your service you’re cheating them, they need you” and the like. This has always made me feel really uncomfortable.

    I realise that yes, I probably could be a “better” salesperson (or at least make more sales) if I used different words and pushed a bit harder, but it really doesn’t work for me. I don’t like it when people manipulate me, and I don’t want to do it to anyone else. When “selling”, I answer all the questions the prospective client has, I give them stories about how I’ve solved similar problems, and how I think I can help them, then I leave it up to them to make up their own mind. If they want to think about it, that’s also fine (I like to think things over too).

    If they feel my service is what they want, and suits them, they’ll book me. If they have any doubts at all, I’d really rather they didn’t. I don’t do well at sales courses. :-)

    Glad there are others out there who feel the same way. :-)

  • Julie Curnow

    We have always found ethics in our business to be straight forward. We are customer focused in our business so if we don’t believe in the product then we won’t sell it.
    What we found harder is what to do when a previously great product which had been a market leader for 30 years really went down hill with a range of faults following new “improvements” over 3 years. We probably gave that supplier more rope than a dealer without our experience wouldn’t have done. The ironic thing is we ended up changing to another manufacturer with a product we ordinarily wouldn’t have touched because 20 years ago they had a terrible reputation and have now turned into a great product.
    Our sales staff are influenced by our ethics. We did have one sales guy who was into a sale at any cost by trying to confuse and over complicate matters. Unsurprisingly he only lasted a few months as he didn’t fit into our unwritten code of practice.

  • Tao de Haas

    The word manipulate comes from the Latin word manipulare. It means, to move, arrange, operate, or control by the hands or by mechanical means skilfully. (Ever had a manicure?) In other words, skillful handling. That is exactly what we do and need to do. The word manipulation has just been associated with negative connotations.
    So think about it is terms of skillful handling with does not in any way exclude ethics, morals and care.

  • Air Con Perth

    I agree with Tao de Haas.