The ethics of copywriting, and why I only work with small independent businesses
Ok, so the ethics of copywriting is a pretty weighty title to call a blog post, and it’s obviously not something I’m an expert on. At all. I don’t for one moment think that my Philosophy IB (equivalent to A-Level) gives me any sort of basis on which to present a real judgement on the subject.
That being said, it is something that I think about quite a lot, and something that Jen Carrington and I touched upon on her podcast Make it Happen. So I thought I would write a bit more about it here, not so much to offer a definitive viewpoint on the subject, more to explain my thoughts on it and why I only work with, and write copy for, small, independent business. I do get back on my soapbox (similar topic to here actually) again, but please bear with me!
To me, copywriting is a responsibility. I really believe in the power of words. I believe they can have a real impact on people and how we live our lives. Words are how we connect to each other, how we tell our stories, and how we share the things that matter to us. They are how we convince, charm, and persuade. And they can be used to manipulate and coerce.
I also believe that advertising, while perhaps not the root of ALL evil, is definitely to blame for a great deal of things that are wrong in our current society. Over the last hundred years or so, we have, without realising it I think, transitioned from being citizens first, to consumers above all.
Now, I won’t pretend to be a expert on the history of advertising (I’m obviously not), but the man who is wildly recognised as the father of modern advertising is Albert Lasker. Before him advertising consisted of simple product descriptions and prices. Along with copywriter Claude C Hopkins, he created and developed “reason why” advertising – giving people a reason to make a specific purchase. And these whys quickly transitioned from being practical to emotional. Advertising began to appeal, and play on, people’s feelings, longings and desires.
This style of advertising is now ubiquitous. Desire is at the heart of pretty much every single campaign. And it’s not just desire for the actual thing, but desire for the lifestyle or image that is being portrayed. Advertisers and copywriters know what it is we want and what it is we fear, and present their products as something akin to a magical fairy godmother which will fix and answer these wishes. We buy iPhones not because we actually NEED a new phone, but because of what we think having the latest one will make us look like. Cool. Affluent. We buy clothes not because we NEED them, but because we hope that if we wear them we will look like the model in the image. Sexy. Beautiful. Skinny. We buy perfume not because we NEED any more scents, but because the male model looks at the female model (or visa-versa) adoringly, and we want someone to look at us that way.
We all know this. Very few of us are naive enough not to see through it all. But that doesn’t always make a difference. I know when I’m being manipulated by an advert, or a magazine, or an Instagram account, but I can’t (or want to) always refuse the urge to buy what they are offering. Advertising is very successful at tapping into our insecurities. There is so much stuff I’ve bought because seeing an advert has made me feel like I am lacking in something. And that I need that thing to make me better. To make me happy.
While I’m not a fully-fledged, card-carrying, minimalist just yet, or perhaps ever will be, I do strongly believe in being conscious and intentional with our consumerism. And it’s something I’m trying to put into practise on a regular basis.
And unfortunately I see a lot of this at play in the online creative world as well. It goes back a lot to what I said in this post about how I think creative entrepreneurship is made to look easy. And I’ve had a lot of response to it, from people saying they feel the same way. Quite a lot of people (and – disclaimer here – by no means everyone) use a glamourised, filtered, edited, and exaggerated picture of their own lifestyle to sell their products. They tell people that if you want to be earning 6-figures, spending half your day on the beach or swinging in a hammock, or look as good as I do in a bikini then you should buy my programme, product or services. Having a 9-5 is boring. Looking forward to spending Friday nights with your friends is boring. Watching your favourite Netflix show is boring. Your life is boring. You are boring. They tap into people’s fears (mine included) that they are somehow not doing enough with their life, that they are wasting their talents. That right now they, and their life, is not good enough.
It’s, cover your ears mum, a load of bollocks.
(And also, side note, it doesn’t work. There’s no one side fits all map for being an entrepreneur.)
Not everyone suits, or even really wants the creative freedom entrepreneur lifestyle, whatever you want to call it. It’s something Sam Sparrow and I talked about in her episode of my podcast, There Are Other Ways. Sam has a 9-5 job, which she loves, which gives her time and space to do her own stuff on the side. She, shock horror, has no desire to give it all up and become a full-time blogger. She likes having a regular salary and stability.
So why, if I believe all of this, am I copywriter? Because as naff, and overly grandiose as it sounds, I also believe that the power of words can be used for good. I really believe in the value of small, independent businesses, run by people who are passionate and engaged with what they do and sell. I believe in strong local economies. I believe that companies can be about more than just facilitating a transaction of money. I believe that running your own business can be an incredible, tough, stretching, but ultimately rewarding experience. It’s not everyone, but it is definitely for some people. And I want to help those people make it work.
And I believe there is a way of writing copy ethically.
I believe that we can sell our products and services in a way that feels good for us, and our customers or clients. I believe we can share our stories, our values, our ideas in a way that connects to people on a really human level. That tells them how we or our products can really help them without manipulating them, or playing on their insecurities. I believe that ultimately, if you offer something of really value, and are prepared to put the work in, then you can make a really good living for yourself.
Finally, Vic from SAYA Designs mentioned this quote in her episode of There Are Other Ways: “When you buy from a small business an actual person does a happy dance”. I really like helping more people have more happy dances! That is why I’m a copywriter for small, creative businesses.
Ok, I’ll get off my soapbox and stop using my pompous voice now.