I’m fascinated by the power of the written word. I can spend hours immersed in a thesaurus, picking the precise word to express a thought. I analyze speeches, blogs, and news articles to understand how the choice of words and images can sway readers. Same thing with websites, billboards, flyers, advertisements, and social media posts. And that’s led me to a meditation on the ethics of good copywriting.

Good copywriters tell stories that make their clients happy. Websites get more attention, social media accounts get more followers, blog posts are read and quoted more often. Products and services are purchased, candidates win political offices. Clients are delighted; copywriters get more work.

The Dilemma

What do you do when a client sells something or promotes a point of view that you find dangerous or offensive? Should you write great copy for a bad purpose? Maybe to sell a product you know is defective, or a service from someone you suspect is not ethical? Sounds pretty straightforward: don’t take the job. Or do, and you hold your nose while you sign the contract.

Here’s another example: should you write great copy for someone you don’t agree with? They’re not evil, they’re not out to do harm; they simply have a different viewpoint from yours. Maybe a diametrically opposing viewpoint. Maybe they’re for lower taxes and your cause is funding social services for the needy. Or they want to preserve a natural habitat but you’d like to see more jobs in the area. What do the ethics of good copywriting tell you?

Ah, that’s the problem, isn’t it?

Even More Challenges

With the panic over fake news and the social media echo chamber, copywriters can feel driven to shout over the crowd to be heard. We use more emotional words; the tone becomes more hysterical. We play up social divisiveness to drive clicks and views. Us vs. them is an easy way to get attention. Us is the righteous few; them is the great unwashed enemy. Boo hiss on they, them, the others. The not us.

Charts on a laptopAnalytics count each mouse click and record it for posterity. Clients use those numbers to gauge success. Which words drive the stronger response, get more of whatever it is we’re measuring? Let’s push harder to get more of that. It’s like heroin. Our clients are addicted. We’re addicted.

If things don’t work out quite right, if the results are unpleasant or unexpected, the reaction is to say, “I just write the stuff. I can’t control how people react to it.

In a word, bullshit.

What Can Copywriters Do?

Take ownership of and responsibility for your content. Don’t act like a tech bro: you are obliged to consider how people will use your work. You are being paid to stir emotions and drive specific reactions. You need to think the implications through.

Recognize that someone with a different viewpoint isn’t the enemy. Lots of us disagree with each other. Some people like chocolate, some like vanilla. Vive la difference. Broaden your mind a bit by working for the other side. You may even learn something.

Talk to your client and insist on honesty. So much content relies heavily on emotion-laden words and dog whistles. Don’t take that easy road; challenge yourself to make the point in other, better ways.

If you can’t, maybe you need to find a new client.