It’s Monday — that means it’s time to open up the mailbox and answer YOUR questions!

I’ve let this one sit in my queue for a while…

It’s a rather long email that dances around a question and calls for a response about ethics and copywriting.

And, as my friendly correspondent suggests, it IS something I’ve considered frequently throughout my career.

I don’t have too much more to say to preface it, so I’ll give the obligatory Mailbox Monday plug and dive in…

To submit YOUR question to be answered in an upcoming Mailbox Monday issue, click here.

Today’s question…

Hi Roy!

This has been percolating in my mind for months now, and I think I’m finally able to articulate it.

I’m fortunate that two of my primary areas of interest, personal finance and health/fitness/nutrition, also happen to be two of the most lucrative in the copywriting space. I was interested in these long before I even entertained a career in copywriting.

But that also means I know what works and what doesn’t when it comes to wealth and health, and can quickly spot the bullshit in the promises spelled out in the copy that works.

I started a side project in the supplement space, and was able to get my hands on a sizable swipe file of ‘million dollar ads’. Supplements are also something I know a lot about, and nearly every. single. swipe of these winning supplement ads are little more than snake oil.

The classic example is the ‘weight loss pill’ in all its many forms. I know that weight loss is simply a matter of calories consumed vs calories burned (in short: diet and exercise). It’s not fast, it’s not sexy, but there’s also no way around the laws of thermodynamics.

Yet the ‘miracle weight loss’ industry has been, and continues to be, one of the most lucrative markets of all time.

In the financial space, which I know you are intimately familiar with, I know the best path to wealth for the average consumer is investment in index funds with low fees through a company like Vanguard. Yet everyone is foaming at the mouth for things like Bitcoin…which any shrewd investor knows to stay far away from.

I guess part of the blame can be placed on sleazy marketers and unscrupulous snake oil salesman, but I think equal or more blame can be placed on us consumers, and the all too human traits of greed, laziness, and instant gratification.

As Eugene Schwartz tells us, “Copy cannot create desire for a product. It can only take the hopes, dreams, fears, and desires that already exist in the hearts of millions of people, and focus those already-existing desires onto a particular product. This is the copy writer’s task: not to create this mass desire – but to channel and direct it.”

It’s tempting to take on a cynical attitude about all of this. “If these sucker consumers are willing to believe in magic or an easy button, then why shouldn’t I profit from selling it to them!?’

Our job as marketers is not to educate the public, only to connect the already-existing desire with product that fulfills that desire. Yet as someone who takes ethics and honesty very seriously, I still find the idea of marketing a product or service I don’t believe in to be deeply troubling. It would be nice if us marketers could only sell products we believe in, but I doubt very many careers were built on such firm values…

I’m asking you because I can tell you are a thoughtful and honest person, dedicated to delivering value above all else. Surely you’ve wrestled with these ethical dilemmas at some point in your career, and I’m hoping for some of your wisdom.

(I realize after reading through this that I never actually asked a question, but I’m sure you can share some thoughts on the matter).

Thanks in advance, and for all you’ve given thus far. Becoming a subscriber of your Insiders program was one of the easiest decisions I’ve ever made.



This is NOT an easy question to answer…

Let’s start with a few data points…

There’s a marketer who I consider to be a “mentor from a distance.”  That is, someone whose work I’ve long-admired, but who I don’t really work with.

I once had the fortune of hanging out with them after-hours at a marketing conference.  Drinks were flowing, as they often do.

And this person said something that stuck with me — and M’s email above helped me recall…

They were, in large part, explaining why many wannabe copywriters will never succeed. They basically said that those wannabes aren’t cynical enough to make a good copywriter.

Call that data point one: great marketer says cynicism is what it takes to be successful as a copywriter.

Another top copywriter has, at one point or another, basically come out to say that you have to be willing to manipulate and exploit the feelings of your prospects, in order to get them to respond.  Data point two.

Another copywriter who I know (but haven’t spoken with in years) basically called the market he wrote for idiots.  He didn’t share their views, and used that to justify his habit of lying to them, manipulating their beliefs and emotions, to get money from them.  Data point three.

And these data points all come from people who I still have SOME respect for.

Here’s how so much manipulation and lying is justified…

  1. In every single case above, these people believe they’re selling products that the prospect actually wants. Although, in some cases, how they classify what the prospect wants and what it appears that they are selling is actually different. For example, you may think a prospect buys an investment newsletter in order to make better investing decisions, and they do indeed act on many of the recommendations.  But I’ve heard it told more than once that most investment publications are actually bought for what largely falls under the category of “entertainment,” and one needs look no further than Las Vegas and the consumer electronics industry to see just how much money people love to waste on entertainment.
  2. In every single case above, they do monitor their refund and complaint rates, and use that to gauge when they’re taking it too far. Now, some people’s definition of too far is far more liberal than others’. For me, I HATE refunds.  I’ll give them when they’re requested.  But I want to know what I did wrong so I can fix it.  I’ve heard it taught more than once that if you’re not getting 10% refunds, you’re not selling hard enough.  You have to choose your comfort level.
  3. In every single case above, they believe in one principle: sell them what they want, and deliver what they need. Let’s go with the investing example. Try selling someone actual sound investing advice.  Go for it.  Sell someone a portfolio of 10 low-expense funds, balanced annually, with the advice to not touch it.  Even though it’s the best thing for them, it’s not what they want.  What do they want, as evidenced by their buying behavior?  Hot stock tips and sure-thing winners, or a financial bunker for the impending doomsday — depending on where we’re at in the investment cycle.  So that’s what you put in your selling message, and sprinkle throughout your content.  But also in your content, be sure to emphasize the sound investing strategies, and give advice on portfolio allocation for the more speculative plays.  (e.g. 10% of your portfolio is “play money” you can allocate toward big bets on a 100% return.)

Does this mean they make all the people happy all the time?  No way.  You can’t do ANYTHING big in the world and make all the people happy all the time.

I think for the most part though, these marketers are delivering the majority of their customers a happy buying and owning experience.  They’re giving people what they want, in a way where they’re not let down in the end.

I tend to be more ethically cautious…

I have, at times, put together sales pitches I didn’t 100% believe in.

Typically it’s been for information products, where I knew I was writing to a market I wasn’t a member of.  I was writing to their beliefs, not mine.  AND — this is important — I was writing within the client’s beliefs or preferences as well.

I don’t love to do that.

That said, part of my role in ethically fulfilling my obligation as a “gun for hire” copywriter is to help the client tell their story to their customers in the best possible way.  And ultimately I’m using my words to share their story with their prospects.

As part of that, my clients do take on the full ethical and legal responsibility of their marketing content, and do a compliance review to make sure every piece of copy is legal and factual before it is made public.

I seldom have edits come back from legal because I work to justify as much as possible in the copy, with full background and citations for claims and promises that I make.

But I’ve largely stayed away from the supplement business (and the health market in general) for many reasons including the ones in M’s email.

There are a limited number of truly effective supplements, and I don’t want to go from client to client pitching the proverbial “snake oil.”

Here are some considerations to make sure you stay on the right side of the ethics spectrum…

First, you should be clear about what you will and will not do for money.  I’ve turned plenty of potentially lucrative opportunities away because I didn’t want to sell their products.  I have a couple more I should’ve turned down, but there have also been times where it was harder to say no to a big check.  (And unlike many financial copywriters, I didn’t write a Bitcoin promo last year when it was all the rage.)

Second, go after great clients who truly deliver value.  There are a TON of clients out there, and effective marketing will never go out of style.  Try to find the clients that YOU believe deliver legitimate value, and are honest, ethical, and above-board, and develop good relationships with them.  Most copywriters can stay busy for life with one really great client or a handful of good ones.  Aim for fewer, better, and you’ll sleep better.

Third, make your choices from word to word.  You do have a responsibility to your client to generate the biggest response you can.  But you also have a responsibility to yourself to create work you believe is ethical.  So on a line-by-line basis, don’t lie.  Only say what you can back up.  Present it in the best possible light, yes.  But only say what’s true and verifiable.

Final thoughts…

Ultimately, you will have regrets.

I believe this is true of life in general, and any profession.

And the more ambitious you are, the more regrets you’ll have, because you’re constantly stretching yourself and putting yourself out there.

You will make mistakes.

The two worst things you can do are 1) not learn from those mistakes to do better next time, and 2) let mistakes and the fear thereof keep you from all the great things you can do in the world.

I have a long list of values that represent my approach to business, and I’ll list a few that serve as good reminders and affirmations for remaining ethical in a sometimes horrendous profession:

— Golden Rule: We treat others the best way we want to be treated

— 5-Star Preeminence: We strive to be the best, most beneficial option in our category, creating a wow experience that’s clearly head and shoulders above the rest

— Kaizen: We practice continuous incremental improvement in all impact areas

— Long-view: We act in ways to foster 12-year or 12-decade relationships, not 12-minute, 12-day, 12-week, or even 12-month profits

— Long-view: We act in ways to foster 12-year or 12-decade relationships, not 12-minute, 12-day, 12-week, or even 12-month profits

— Improve it: Our work adds to the truth, beauty, and goodness in the world

Come up with your own list, and work to get better at living by your values every day.

Yours for bigger breakthroughs,

Roy Furr