Are you an ethical copywriter or a marketing weasel?

October 14, 2010 by Dean Rieck
Filed under: Business Smarts 

ethics of copywritingIn 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:

Article #1
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.

Article #2
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.

Article #4
All descriptions, promises, and claims of limitation should be in accordance with actual conditions, situations, and circumstances existing at the time of the promotion.

Article #8
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.

Article #10
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?

Related posts:

  1. 187 marketing terms every copywriter should know

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Smart Comments

14 Comments on Are you an ethical copywriter or a marketing weasel?

  1. Len Bailey on Oct 14th, 2010 9:36 am
  2. Great article, Dean. I’ve found the best way to turn a prospect into a long-term (or even lifetime) customer is by being 100% honest and ethical.

    If your customer walks away feeling tricked or with a “bad taste” from the experience, don’t be surprised if he asks for a refund. And even if he doesn’t, chances aren’t good he’ll buy from you again or recommend your product/service to others. So you may have gotten that first sale… but you’ve most likely burned what could — and should — have been a bridge to a mutually profitable relationship.

    As Ogilvy said, “The prospect isn’t a moron. She’s your wife.”

    Best wishes for success,


  3. Lucy Smith on Oct 14th, 2010 4:07 pm
  4. I would definitely consider myself to be ethical. If I thought I was in any danger of becoming a marketing weasel I’d be switching off my computer and finding myself another job. The whole not-quite-the-truth-but-not-a-lie thing was precisely what I hated about my stint in PR. Obviously in marketing nothing is ever absolutely absolute, but I really wouldn’t want to make a career of misleading people for the sake of the almighty dollar.

  5. Dean Rieck on Oct 14th, 2010 5:15 pm
  6. Lucy,
    Okay. But here’s a question for you. How far do you go to make sure your clients are ethical? You can control your own copy, but what if the information your clients give you is untrue? This can get tricky.

  7. Graeme Roberts on Oct 16th, 2010 12:13 pm
  8. Dear Dean,

    I really enjoy ProCopy Tips, and get a lot out of it.

    I just posted a link to this article on the Facebook cause Marketing Golden Rule, which I started recently to promote ethical marketing among practitioners and customers.

    Please check it out and give it a shout if you can. We will set up a website at when we can afford it.

    I think of marketing and copywriting as noble professions. We are trying to live up to that by marketing to others as we would have them market to us. No absolutes, just encouraging everyone to think about this.

    I would love to do a guest post for you, on this or another copywriting subject.

    Best regards,


  9. Stuart on Oct 16th, 2010 12:29 pm
  10. I’m facing a problem like this right now.

    I consider myself an ethical copywriter but fear the only way to make it might demand a scary transformation to marketing weasel …

    I’m doing some pro bono work for a charity to get some samples and hopefully a testimonial and case study. I stated this upfront.

    Whilst asking the client questions about the organization, I noticed some of the questions appeared to hit a nerve. They got a bit emotional and were quite evasive.

    The questions were meant to get a response that should help build credibility and trust. The answers I got though don’t and make me feel rather uneasy about it all.

    What’s more, during the course of the project, I’ve sent some e-mails requesting information by a specified date. Some of which have just been totally ignored. Another was 13 days late with no explanation, or anything at all, in the meantime.

    What would you do if that happened to you? Or what do you do when it happens to you? Chase them up?

    Personally, I just think it’s rude.

    But, I can’t help feeling that if I say so, I’m unlikely to get a testimonial or case study.

    Still, what disturbs me the most is that this organization is supposed to defend vulnerable people who are not treated as equals but taken advantage of or even abused.

    Personally, I feel ignoring my e-mails demonstrates a lack of respect that’s contrary to what they’re supposed to stand for.

    Just now, I face the unenviable question of what to do. Confront the issues and point out the evasiveness and the lack of respect that’s contrary to what they’re supposed to stand for? Or, just turn a blind eye, hunker down and do the best I can, and hope I get something out of it? I’m sure they expect me to do the latter.

    What bothers me too is this sort of thing seems all too common. It’s certainly not been an isolated experience. I fear I’m just going to end up upsetting and falling out with clients all the time. Meanwhile, I need some testimonials to get off the ground.

  11. Dean Rieck on Oct 16th, 2010 3:21 pm
  12. Stuart,
    I’d say trust your gut. If you get a bad feeling about the organization, walk away. If you’ve already made a commitment, though, be a professional and do the work, get your samples, and then don’t work with them again. But don’t get into a pissing match. You can’t win.

  13. Dean Rieck on Oct 16th, 2010 3:22 pm
  14. Graeme,
    See the link at the top of the page: Write for PCT.

  15. Lucy Smith on Oct 17th, 2010 11:07 pm
  16. @Dean – normally my new clients are perfectly fine (possibly because they often come from referrals so someone else has done the vetting!), but I have recently come across a situation where I wasn’t sure how above-board the client was. In the end they didn’t want to pay my rate, which I guess answered the question.

    It can be a tricky one, but I suppose it gets easier as you get a good handle on your client base. I think everyone will probably have a few run-ins with slightly dodgy clients – but that’s the only way you learn to recognise them.

  17. lawton chiles on Oct 19th, 2010 2:55 pm
  18. This is a subject that is never mentioned-truth in advertising :)

    Seriously, I just had a potential client that I had to pass on b/c the guy that gave me the job said that bits about the letter were totally untrue.

    I chewed on this, and then canceled the gig. As my Dad pointed out, no money in the world is enough to add window-dressing to a marketing piece of ad.

    There’s not enough cash in the world to go against what’s right and honest.

    Why sell a lie?

    This was the first time I’d run into something like that-it freaked me out.

    I can understand pen names and such, and even a story that is made-up–if the reader can grasp that, then that’s fine.

    But lying? No way.

  19. Stuart on Oct 19th, 2010 3:22 pm
  20. Dean, thanks a lot for your feedback.

    That (the professional) was the approach I took to start.

    Nonetheless, I think I’ll have to take a stand on this. There’s just too much work still do (getting the samples will take too much time), and with massive doubts and misgivings about both the business and getting my end of the deal – testimonial and case study.

    I’m planning instead to take what I’ve done somewhere else.

    Lawton, the first?!! Keep you eyes open. They may not always admit it, but just listen to the tone of voice, body language, sub-communications, contradictions, explosions, evasiveness etc. It’s really not pretty at all.

  21. Dean Rieck on Oct 19th, 2010 3:22 pm
  22. Lawton,
    Good for you. No need to compromise your principles for one project. Besides, if a client is willing to lie to customers, he’s willing to lie to you too.

  23. lawton chiles on Oct 19th, 2010 3:38 pm
  24. @Stuart, maybe not the first, but it was the first time that someone came out and said, there’s things in here that are totally made up.

    And I said, “I can’t contribute to that”.

    People believe fantasies in movies and in sales themes, not in the copy itself.

    @Dean you are right-He probably was willing to lie to me.

  25. Sara on Oct 28th, 2010 11:22 am
  26. Nice to know I’m in good company with other copywriters.

    Dean, about your question “How far do you go to make sure your clients are ethical? You can control your own copy, but what if the information your clients give you is untrue? This can get tricky.”

    A lot of times I offer to do a proofread once the copy is live and on the web. This way I can catch any typos or formatting errors that made it’s way into the copy during the “copy and paste” phase. If I notice anything that seems a little off, like a fake testimonial or a phony photo, I ‘ll tell the client that I recommend honesty, because visitors can smell a lie.

    After that I feel I have to leave it alone. I wouldn’t use that sample in my portfolio. This has only happened once or twice, but I suspect it’ll happen again.

  27. David on Dec 11th, 2011 5:02 am
  28. When copywriters are deciding on the ethics of their clients, how much do they think about the following questions? I’m starting out as a copywriter, and I would like to think about these questions when selecting clients, but I’m worried I won’t find many clients.

    - Do they exploit overseas labour through poor working conditions and pay?
    - Do they promote violence and war by selling weapons or investing in companies that do?
    - Do they care about their impact on the environment and are they working to reduce pollution?