Ethics for Copywriters (Part 2 of 3) snake oil, misleading copy, and duplicate text

Melinda J. Irvine -- ethics for freelancers - part 2 of 3

Ladies and gentlemen, attention, please!
Come in close where everyone can see!
I got a tale to tell, it isn’t gonna cost a dime!
(And if you believe that,
we’re gonna get along just fine.)

Stephen King
Needful Things

Copywriting is persuasive writing, where you are directly asking readers to buy, subscribe, or join the cause. As writers we hold in our keyboarding hands a responsibility to tell the truth and ensure the products, services, charities, or causes we are paid to write about are presented accurately and authentically.

Exaggerating product benefits and purchase outcomes might result in initial sales for the client, but will not win them (or you) repeat business and long term success. This blog post is part 2 in a series about ethics for copywriters and focuses on the way you frame your text, source your materials, and represent products (your products and your client’s products).  If you are a new copywriter it also will help you sift through the mountains of projects you get asked to do and decide on the ones that are worthy of your attention.

Being an ethical copywriter makes good business sense: you develop a reputation of integrity and get to work with reputable clients — good people whose products and services are adding real value to the world.

represent yourself with integrity - Melinda J. Irvine

Represent yourself with integrity

From the first day of your copywriting career represent yourself with integrity. Confidently promise what you can deliver, but only what you actually can. In brief:-

  • Be clear about the services you provide, how much you charge, and the time it takes to deliver a project. Communicate with your client through the job so they know where you’re at, then deliver your projects on time. It’s ethical AND it’s great customer service.
  • Don’t promise stuff you can’t deliver. Don’t tell clients you’ll get them to #1 on google (unless you can) and be clear about how that might actually benefit their business (just how are your going to get those people clicking your clever pay-per-click links into buying stuff or booking a service?). Be confident AND realistic.
  • Don’t sell clients stuff they don’t need. Eg, selling a small business client a package to get 1,000 new Facebook followers — if those followers aren’t going to buy anything you’ve just wasted your client’s time, your client’s money, and your professional reputation. Only sell customers what is actually going to benefit their business.

Affiliate Marketing

Affiliate marketing can be a great way to generate residual income and increase your revenue. But as a professional writer make sure you are transparent in your promotional copy so that readers are aware (and fully understand) that you are being financially rewarded if they buy something.

It is not good enough to merely have a disclaimer on your ‘Terms and Conditions’ page. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) in the USA have the following requirements

“If you disclose your relationship to the retailer clearly and conspicuously on your site, readers can decide how much weight to give your endorsement … as for where to place a disclosure, the guiding principle is that it has to be clear and conspicuous. The closer it is to your recommendation, the better.”

“Putting disclosures in obscure places – for example, buried on an ABOUT US or GENERAL INFO page, behind a poorly labeled hyperlink or in a “terms of service” agreement – isn’t good enough. Neither is placing it below your review or below the link to the online retailer so readers would have to keep scrolling after they finish reading. Consumers should be able to notice the disclosure easily. They shouldn’t have to hunt for it.”

work with great clients - Melinda J. Irvine

Work with great clients

Do your research before taking on new clients, and strive to work with businesses and individuals who provide real value in the world. I’m strict about who I work with and ask a lot of questions before getting started. I’m not interested in writing copy that persuades people to:-

  • secure micro-finance and high-interest loans,
  • gamble
  • buy health supplements and steroids
  • read fake news

At the same time I’m not interested in working with clients who don’t take care of their customers. Last year I was asked to write sales copy and marketing emails for a business selling intrepid things they had bought while they were travelling. The site looked cool, the products were funky, and they were going to pay me in advance. No problem right?

Wrong. Before I accepted the job I did a bit of preliminary research — like reading their  customer feedback reports. And I quickly declined. There was literally pages and pages of customer review statements statements like ‘never got my product‘ or ‘item was crap and nothing like the ad‘ or ‘such a waste of money‘.

Apart from not wanting to write copy that helps an unscrupulous business rip people off, chances are these type of companies will rip off their copywriters too. Tread carefully.

say no to dodgy writing assignments - Melinda J. Irvine

Turn down dodgy writing assignments

We copywriters get asked  to write a huge range of projects, but before taking on a job get clear on exactly what you are being expected to write. Quickly say no to writing assignments if you are asked to:-

  1. write a review for a business or product you have never used
  2. complete an essay or other assignment on behalf of a student
  3. exaggerate the benefits of a product or service
  4. copy someone else’s website (or written work) then rewrite it

Let’s have a look at each of these in more detail.

In Australia, if you write get paid to write a review about a business, product, or service you could be in breach of the Competition and Consumer Act 2010. The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) explicitly advises that in order to write a review you must:-

  • have actually used the product or service
  • reflect your genuinely held opinion
  • not be a friend or relative of the business owner or manager

Additionally you cannot be paid to solicit others to write reviews on behalf of businesses  either — the ACCC  have fined a number of Australian businesses for displaying fake reviews and had them removed from websites.  In the USA, the Federal Trade Commission works to prevent similar fraudulent, deceptive and unfair business practices.

You might find these official documents (listed below) helpful if you are unsure about writing product reviews for client, and remember that writing up a dodgy product review is essentially fraud.

As a professional writer, you will get asked from time to time to ghostwrite essays, reports, case studies, and other assignments  on behalf of enrolled students. Sites like Upwork, Freelancer, and Airtasker are filled with student asking for your writing expertise, but remember that higher education bodies consider this contract cheating.

Contract cheating is one of the most serious forms of academic misconduct. A student found to have outsourced their work may not only receive a fail for the assessment task, but may be suspended from their studies or even expelled from the University.

University of Wollongong

As a professional writer remember that all work submitted for assessment by a student must be their own work, do not participate in contract cheating. Specifically …

  • DON’T write a student’s assignment, develop their argument, or structure their essay.
  • DON’T edit and rewrite an assignment.


The term ‘snake oil‘ refers back to the old-west American ‘doctors‘ who travelled from town-to-town selling ‘miracle’ health cures — then quickly left town before their customers realised they had been cheated.

Promising thin thighs in 30 days, or the ultimate guide to beat the pokies, or a guaranteed hair re-growth tonic are all modern day versions of snake oil. Don’t follow the snake oil path, you’ll quickly lose credibility as a copywriter AND you could wind up having to defend yourself to the consumer authority in your home country.

Here in Australia when presenting information about products or services to customers, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) advises that you must:-

  • Make sure the details you give about the product is correct AND current. Do your research and don’t guess the facts.
  • Use simple language. Don’t mislead customers by using unnecessary jargon and making ambiguous statements.
  • Back up your claims with facts and documented evidence. Don’t rely on secondary sources and domestic websites for your research.
  • Don’t make promises you cannot keep, or make predictions without reasonable basis


I see a lot of advertisements on freelancer sites asking writers to ‘rewrite’ blog posts and web content from another website then pass it off as their own content. Another variation is a business professional (eg, a dentist) asking you to create product and service descriptions for their business, but direct you to competitor websites as references. Copying and reworking text (also known as plagiarism) is a breach of copyright laws.

strive for writing excellence - Melinda J. Irvine

Strive for writing excellence

Excellent writing is achieved by a commitment to constant learning, a daily writing practice, industry participation, and diligent research on each and every job. Writing excellence is synonymous with an ethical business practice and at the foundation of great customer service.

Having a great career as a writer and a successful (and profitable) writing business takes more than just being a great writer — sure it helps — but businesses are built on relationships. And relationships are built on trust. And trust is built on integrity that begins with an ethical approach to every aspect of the business — especially the writing.

Next Steps

Read the other blogs in this series.

Melinda J. Irvine -- ethics for freelancers - part 1 of 3Melinda J. Irvine -- ethics for freelancers - part 3 of 3