Copywriting ethics: 6 steps for working with questionable clients

September 16, 2010 by Dean Rieck
Filed under: Business Smarts 

copywriting ethicsMost of my clients have been respectable and honest. Many are household brand names, such as Sprint, American Express, and Turbo Tax.

But I’ve received my share of calls from, shall we say, questionable clients. You know, gambling, porn, and other businesses on the wrong side of the tracks.

Today Sara Lancaster reveals how she deals with this difficult ethical challenge.


The day I sat down to write this post I received a timely email from an affiliate program inviting me to promote clothing. Here’s an excerpt:

We have been looking for someone such as yourself to promote our fashion and classic items…take a look at our full selection by clicking this link. As you’ll see, we carry everything from the latest fashion finds to the classic staples that are essential to every woman’s closet.

I bit. When I clicked the link I was surprised to see an assortment of men’s risqué undergarments that I wouldn’t exactly describe as “classic” or “women’s” — more like outrageous and borderline offensive.

I’ve fielded several calls and emails from adult website owners, online gambling promoters, weight loss experts selling snake oil, “business opportunity” con artists, etc., who all wanted quality web content for their morally questionable niche.

While I’ve turned down most of these projects, every now and again I’ll take a project provided the client seems to be a legitimate business person with scruples.

Of course, I’ve set a limit for myself — I won’t promote adult products or services, for example, regardless of circumstance — but I try to remember that one of the great things about the Internet is that anyone can find anything. As long as it’s legal and no one gets hurt, who am I to judge?

If you’re like me and find yourself considering a project that some might consider borderline, I think it’s important that you take a few extra steps before beginning the work.

6 steps I follow before taking on a questionable copywriting project

1. I’ve made it a personal policy to always speak with a client before taking on a project. This helps me to know that the client and I are on the same page and have the same ideas for the project.

2. Once I have a rapport with the client over the phone, it’s easier for me to ask the tough questions about the value of their product or service. An added bonus to talking with a client up front is that he or she is usually a little kinder during the revision process.

3. Next, I head to Google and try different searches such as “NAME and rip off” or “NAME and scam,” etc., to see what I can find. I also check,, and other review sites to see what others have to say about the company/person.

If at this point I feel comfortable moving forward, I make the following demands:

4. Ask the client for at least a 50% deposit or full payment up front.

5. Get a contract. As Dean mentioned in a previous post, 7 elements of a solid freelance copywriting contract, a contract sets a professional tone at the start and scares away scammers.

6. If you want to keep your work arrangement private, ask the client to sign your NDA.

Considerations for writing ethical copy

At the BlogHer conference held this last August, I was lucky enough to hear Stacey Ferguson from the FTC speak about the year-old guidelines governing endorsements and testimonials.

I learned quite a bit about making claims on the web, which is complicated enough to fill a dozen blog posts. I don’t want to get into the intricacies here, but I do want to share one comment Ms. Ferguson made that really stuck in my mind.

“Whatever you do, do not guarantee weight loss.”

I think this sentence sums up how copywriters should look at writing copy for any industry. Don’t make false claims. Don’t fictionalize testimonials (they MUST be authentic). Don’t promise that the customer will lose 15 pounds or win $500 or meet the woman of his dreams when there is a good chance he won’t.

My rules: Don’t judge, but don’t step outside my comfort zone; always say no to snake oil; demand more from clients in controversial industries; and, finally, create ethical copy.

Sara Lancaster, through her agency, No. 2 Pen, provides Web site content and other online marketing materials to small businesses. While she does work with clients in all variety of industries, her primary niches include restaurants, hospitality, and legal.

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  5. Dazzle Your Clients and Double Your Income

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Smart Comments

2 Comments on Copywriting ethics: 6 steps for working with questionable clients

  1. Sara on Sep 19th, 2010 1:02 pm
  2. Big thanks for having me as your guest, Dean.

    [...] Don’t worry. I’m not going to get on a soapbox here. I just believe that this is a subject every copywriter should think about from time to time. Sara Lancaster touched on this last month when she revealed her own standards for accepting clients. [...]