Are you an ethical copywriter or a marketing weasel?
In the minds of some consumers, people in marketing operate at an ethical level below lawyers and barely above used car salesmen.
And that includes copywriters.
Some of my friends call me the “marketing weasel.” It’s said affectionately, since I make a lot of money for some of them, but it shows that even copywriters don’t have the best reputation for ethical behavior.
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.
What is your stance on ethics in copywriting?
Many years ago, I wrote a piece for Direct Marketing Magazine where I outlined 4 ways to approach ethics:
Pragmatism: You’re concerned only with bottom-line results. The end justifies the means. A little deception is okay as long as everyone benefits.
Idealism: You look at right and wrong in absolute terms. You believe that the way you sell is as important as what you sell. No form of deception is acceptable.
Relativism: You see ethics operating on a sliding scale, depending on the time, place, and situation. You depend on commonsense or experience to tell you if you’ve gone too far.
Professionalism: You see yourself as an advocate for your client. Your job isn’t to ponder ethics. You leave ethics to the client and the legal department.
I won’t tell you which view to hold. I’ll just let you ponder these options.
Guidelines for Ethical Business Practice
You can’t decide on a philosophy of ethics without considering what others think about what is or is not ethical.
So I’d like to suggest that you become familiar with the DMA Guidelines for Ethical Business Practice, the standard followed by most direct marketing organizations. It’s a good set of basic ethics regardless of what part of the business world you work in.
Here’s just a taste:
HONESTY AND CLARITY OF OFFER
All offers should be clear, honest, and complete so that the consumer may know the exact nature of what is being offered, the price, the terms of payment (including all extra charges) and the commitment involved in the placing of an order. Before publication of an offer, marketers should be prepared to substantiate any claims or offers made. Advertisements or specific claims that are untrue, misleading, deceptive, or fraudulent should not be used.
ACCURACY AND CONSISTENCY
Simple and consistent statements or representations of all the essential points of the offer should appear in the promotional material. The overall impression of an offer should not be contradicted by individual statements, representations, or disclaimers.
All descriptions, promises, and claims of limitation should be in accordance with actual conditions, situations, and circumstances existing at the time of the promotion.
DISCLOSURE OF SPONSOR AND INTENT
All marketing contacts should disclose the name of the sponsor and each purpose of the contact. No one should make offers or solicitations in the guise of one purpose when the intent is a different purpose regardless of the marketing channel used.
SOLICITATION IN THE GUISE OF AN INVOICE OR GOVERNMENTAL
Offers that are likely to be mistaken for bills, invoices, or notices from public utilities or governmental agencies should not be used.
There are a total of 61 “articles” outlined in this guide covering offers, consent, children, sweepstakes, use of data, online marketing, fundraising, and other areas.
For the most part, the guidelines are common sense. And I’m guessing you’ll agree with most of them.
If you work in a specialized industry, you may have access to another set of ethical guidelines. The point is that you should have a sense of what is okay and what is not so that you can help your clients stay on the straight and narrow and maintain a clean conscience.
With a few minor exceptions, most of my clients have appreciated it when I’ve helped steer them away from anything that could jeopardize the reputation they’ve built up with their customers.
So, do you consider yourself an ethical copywriter … or a marketing weasel? Will anyone answer this question honestly?