What is ethical copywriting?

If you’re on the search for a copywriter, you may have come across folks calling themselves ethical marketers and ethical copywriters.

If you’re wondering what this means, you’re definitely not alone.

As an ethical copywriter, I’m often asked whether ‘ethical’, ‘conscious’ and ‘human-friendly’ are just the latest marketing buzzwords.

So, in this blog post, I’m explaining what it means to me, to approach copywriting and marketing from an ethical and human-friendly approach.

Before we get started, it’s important to acknowledge that this is a nuanced conversation. Our ethics and morals are subjective, meaning what is ethical to one person might be totally different for another.

Yet, there are some things in this world that are clearly ethical and unethical, including how we market our businesses.

I’m an ethical copywriter because…

As someone with a background in social work and trauma-informed therapy, I’m cautious about jumping behind #trending language or concepts.

My values, both personally and within my role as a copywriter, strongly align with starting from a place of ethics and respect for human choice.

This includes having sensitivity to differing levels of health, privilege, trauma and safety.

To me, being an ethical copywriter means remembering that on the other side of selling a product or service is a very real human, with their own set of experiences and wisdom.

And, how we communicate can have a very real impact on that individual.

So, instead of making assumptions about that person, with the goal of getting into their head and making them feel that the only way out of their pain is through a particular product or service, I want instead to connect through honest, empathic and clear communication that respects their expertise, their choice and their diversity.

Ethical copywriting vs unethical copywriting

Many traditional marketing techniques use knowledge of human psychology to activate shame, fear of missing out (FOMO) and pain points.

Unethical copy can look like:

  • A lack of transparency – making vague claims or using greenwashing to appear more ethical or values-led than is true. A lack of transparency also includes using false or purchased testimonials and stating overblown benefits;
  • Using pain points to activate our fears, and shame us into buying. When we rely on pain points we’re also forgetting that not everyone is seeking to buy because of a problem;
  • Manipulating us through false scarcity and manufactured urgency, for example claiming there are only 2 spots left in a program, when really there are more;
  • Using price hiding to make someone hop on a call to get the pricing – this creates a power imbalance from which the potential client can feel it’s harder to say no;
  • Overcoming objections – pushing past people’s boundaries with statements like: “well, if you really want to see change you need to invest in it”; “if you sign up right now, I’ll throw in a bonus. This bonus isn’t available after our call ends.”;
  • Hierarchical and top-down – presenting the business as the expert and the most important holder of that knowledge, without acknowledging other folks’ experiences, knowledge and insight, or without being open to feedback.

These are just some of the ways that unethical marketing tactics show up.

Ethical and human-friendly copywriting starts with a different focus.

Ethical copywriting prioritises honesty, empathy and personality

Because – words have power. 

Plain and simple. Words have the power to hurt and they have the power to heal. 

Words are how we connect and communicate with each other and the world around us. 

Knowing that words have power comes with a responsibility to be aware of, and reflect on how we share and connect online, and in person.

Each of us, in our daily interactions with online platforms, has an opportunity to make the internet a kinder and more inclusive place… to put people back front and centre of our communication.

Whilst bro-marketing tactics would have us believe that we have to use fear and shame to sell, ethical marketing understands that the end goal is about much more than just that next sale or a new follower.

It’s about human-to-human connection that feels good and builds lasting business relationships that everyone enjoys.

Through honest, clear communication that’s infused with your genuine personality and values, you can connect to those who are going to truly choose you because they love what you stand for, who you are and what you offer.

Some core foundations of ethical copywriting

Ethical copywriting puts people before transactions

…respecting the real humans who are reading those words, and respecting their own expertise, their diversity, their choices.

Ethical copywriting doesn’t intentionally use words to make someone feel bad about themselves

…it’s completely possible to use emotionally-connecting language that inspires and engages your audience, without activating harmful emotions.

Ethical copywriting doesn’t use pain points, shame and manipulation to force a sale

…how do you want your audience to feel when they engage with your business words? Do you want them to feel pressure, guilt, fear, shame and anxiety? Or do you want them to feel inspired, energised, hopeful, passionate, encouraged and ready to take action?

Ethical copywriting is as clear and transparent about price and benefits as possible

…to support your audience to make an informed decision that is truly right for them and their circumstances. 

Ethical copywriting doesn’t use false scarcity or false urgency to pressure folks into purchases

…it’s possible to effectively share your true availability, without misleading people. 

Ethical copywriting respects the audience and asks questions rather than making assumptions about them

…any healthy relationship is based on respect and interest in the other. Building meaningful and lasting business relationships starts with being genuinely interested in getting to know your audience.

Ethical copywriting respects people’s boundaries and objections

…a ‘no’ or a ‘not right now’ is never an invitation to push harder with the sale. Financial barriers are not a ‘mindset issue’ to overcome. Instead, do folks need more time, more information, or is it just not right for them?

Ethical copywriting offers choice by providing different ways for customers or clients to work with you and to engage with your business

…without assuming that everyone is the same, learns the same, or has the same needs. 

Is ethical copywriting effective?

Absolutely! Building meaningful connections through honest, clear and personality-packed communication works!

And, by writing copy that is honest, trustworthy and transparent, we avoid the negative feedback of selling someone something they didn’t need or want, that they feel bad about, and potentially resent us for.

There’s no shame in adjusting our approach – learning involves mistakes

Marketing our businesses more ethically is a practise, and we won’t get everything right 100% of the time. We all have room to grow – we’re all human. 

If you’re now looking at some of your content and rethinking it, that’s completely okay!

Change takes time, and each of us has to unlearn and relearn parts of how we do things. This goes for me too!

And, it helps to have spaces where we can show up, have a go, get it wrong, and adjust our approach. 🙂

Maya Angelou says it beautifully with her quote: 

“Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” 

Maya Angelou

If you’re curious to create more ethically aligned copy for your business, a helpful starting place is to make sure you’re clear on:

  • The bigger why behind what you do in your business
  • The core values that underpin how you do business
  • Who you’re doing it for, and what they’re communicating would help them most
  • How you want to action your why and your values in service of your community.

There’s so so much to unpack about ethical copywriting, and this won’t be the last blog post on the topic. In the meantime, if you have a question, or need ethical copywriting support, you’re always welcome to contact me 🙂

Additional Resources:

The Ethical Move: https://www.theethicalmove.org/

Conscious Marketing by Carolyn Tate (book)

The Ethical Business Book by Sarah Duncan (book)

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