Ethical Copywriting

Where do you draw the line?

I recently had a discussion with a fellow copywriter, and the topic of ethics was brought up. Apparently, my colleague was recently presented with an opportunity to write content for a promotional brochure, and the fee was quite lucrative. They and their client had gone back and forth several times regarding the project’s details, and eventually agreed to move forward. All indications were that this would be straightforward and quite profitable.

However, after receiving the full project brief, my colleague learned that this was a promotion for an MLM (Multi-Level Marketing) program (a pyramid scheme, if we’re being honest). Luckily, after conveying their hesitation to the client, my colleague suffered no ill repercussions, and both parties agreed to an amicable departure.

This conversation really made me think; where does a copywriter draw their proverbial line in the sand? Unfortunately it seems, the less “savory” the company, the more they are typically willing to pay, which can make the choice that much more difficult.

And once we decide what we won’t accommodate, how far do we take it? For instance, if my family has a background in farming, would I write copy for Monsanto? Would I write copy for a laboratory that genetically modifies seeds? Would I choose to work with a milk producer that pumps their cows full of hormones? How about a company that treats their animals inhumanely? Or how about a non-organic operation? The choices can seem endless.

The point is that each of us will draw the line somewhere, and it will be based on very personal reasons. How long our “line” is depends on a whole variety of factors, not the least of which are how passionate we are on a given topic. Wherever our lines are drawn though, it’s important that we not take on work we’re uncomfortable with. And if we do decide to move forward with a project, that we aim at top-level work, just like we would with any other client.

I always keep the Latin phrase Primum non nocere (Do no harm) in mind. Using my colleague’s experience as an example, I could never live with myself if someone lost their hard-earned money based on something I wrote, especially if the product is fraudulent to begin with. However, I fully understand that what I may consider harmful, someone else may not. And the door swings both ways.

What are your thoughts? Where do you draw the line?


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