There’s a famous scene in The Wire where hardened ‘stick-up boy’ Omar Little, giving evidence in a murder trial, has his character assassinated by slimy lawyer Maurice Levy.

‘You are amoral, are you not?’ says Levy. ‘You are feeding off the violence and despair of the drug trade… You are a parasite who leeches off the culture of drugs.’

‘Just like you, man,’ retorts Omar. ‘I got the shotgun, you got the briefcase. It’s all in the game though, right?’

Omar’s point is that everyone who is getting paid, by whatever route, is in the game. Even though rich, white-collar players may be distanced and insulated from the worst consequences of the game, they can’t pretend that those consequences don’t exist – or that they’re not partly responsible.

But what about those who got the pen? If commerce is a game, what kind of role is played by the copywriter? And is copywriting good or evil – or neither?

Fuel for misery

Recently, Jackie Ashley of the Guardian exhorted us to ‘take on the ads that fuel such waste, debt and misery’. Taking a paper by Compass as its starting point, her article argued that ‘those who manufacture our wants’ should be ‘reined in’. (Note how ‘reined in’ implicitly characterises marketers as animals.) She pointed to the problems caused by consumerism, debt and material desire, and endorsed calls for a ban on advertising in public places and ads aimed at children.

Most people can see both sides of this argument. On the one hand, a libertarian might argue that people are free to choose whether or not they buy things, and ultimately bear responsibility for their own actions and financial situation. And on the other, a sociologist might respond that the environment, including the marketing messages we see every day, plays a key role in shaping our behaviour – and, when we are young, perhaps even our character.

Infernal desire machines

Does marketing really manufacture desire? I suspect that many marketers would like to maintain that it doesn’t – while conducting their professional lives as if it does. If marketing couldn’t make people want things, would firms spend as much on it? Is it really true that marketing only caters for existing needs or, at worst, brings forth latent ones?

Apple is said to make ‘things you didn’t know you needed’, and that does seem to sum up the effect of its products. Before the iPad arrived, I didn’t sit around bemoaning the lack of a reading tablet that met all my demands. But once the iPad dropped, I started seeing myself using it – and wanting it, at least a little. The desire may not have been created ex nihilo, but it was definitely shaped and intensified by the product – and, crucially, the buzz generated around it.

The very existence of a discipline called demand generation seems to settle the argument, at least in some cases – marketing is as much about whipping up new desires as it is about satisfying existing ones. (Although the Apple Cube, a rare Steve Jobs fail, shows that even geniuses sometimes introduce products that their marketing machines can’t actually generate demand for.)

Emotion and reason

Within the broader marketing spectrum, what role is played by text? In other words, if marketing makes people miserable, how culpable is the copywriter?

I would argue that words play a crucial role because they can inculcate ideas. Sound, imagery and design are probably more immediately emotive, but they lose impact once we stop viewing the actual media in question.

Words, by contrast, have emotional impact coupled with the power of rhetoric and much more staying power. They can wheedle their way into our internal monologues, planting seeds in the unconscious that resurface once we’ve forgotten their source, masquerading as our own thoughts.

To have this persuasive power, words don’t have to be true – they just have to ring true. Think how often you have fulminated about a personal slight you knew was unfounded, or fretted over a pessimistic prediction that you knew was unlikely to happen. Words that chime with our emotional state or makeup can exert a powerful grip, even if they don’t reflect reality.

On top of emotion, the copywriter can use the power of reason to lead us from contentment to desire. Copy, particularly long copy, can break down our defences with entirely plausible, reasonable-sounding and ultimately compelling arguments. In the hands of the copywriter, an optional purchase can be made to sound essential.

Of course, we don’t have to do what the copywriter says, but we have to respond – even if only in thought. When we talk about ignoring someone’s words, we really mean not acting on them; once they’ve been heard, words cannot be forgotten or suppressed by will alone. Like it or not, the copywriter gets into your head.

Just following orders

So copywriting is a powerful tool. In the hands of a skilful persuader, it can redirect thoughts and emotions, eliciting a real-world action with something as insubstantial as words on a page. But should the copywriter be held accountable for the effect of their words on the audience?

Lawyers would respond that they are simply representatives – putting their client’s case in the best possible light so they get a fair hearing. Unfortunately, the argument that products and services somehow deserve a ‘fair hearing’ in the court of consumer opinion can only really be sustained on a metaphorical level. Marketers aren’t really advocates; they are manipulators. The best they can hope for is the Nuremberg Defence: ‘I was just following orders’.

No wonder Dante placed ‘flatterers’ – those who use language to exploit others – in the eighth circle of hell. ‘Dante did not live to see the full development of political propaganda, commercial advertisement, and sensational journalism, but he has prepared a place for them,’ commented Dorothy L. Sayers (an advertising alumna).

Standing on principle

So copywriters have to accept the ethical implications of their work. Mindful of this, some copywriters take a stance on who they will and won’t work with.

My host Ben Locker, in this post, puts politics, homeopathy and (reluctantly) tobacco on his ‘won’t promote’ list, while freely admitting he wouldn’t have a problem with guns, erotica or alcohol. Comments to the post mention religion, animal testing and lobbies (such as pro-hunting and anti-abortion) as other writers’ no-go areas. On his Q&A page, copywriter Mark Foster lists ‘cigarettes, armaments and nuclear power’ as his bêtes noires.

But is it as simple as steering clear of particular interests and industries? Once you dig a little deeper, many ‘bad’ products have a good side, and vice versa.

Ben admits to being a keen shooter, which is why guns get the all-clear – admirably, he refuses to hypocritically condemn a product that he enjoys himself. But there’s a moral case to be made for promoting guns too – they’re used to keep the peace and uphold the law, as well as wage war. And there’s the libertarian view, of course: guns don’t kill people – people do. Should the copywriter carry the can for what certain of his client’s customers do with their (legal) purchases?

False hope

In a follow-up post, Ben returned to the theme of homeopathy and the issue of selling ‘false hope’, as he put it. He quoted an article suggesting that homeopathic products had no effect, and that therefore marketers were at least not doing harm by promoting them.

But maybe there’s no need to feel guilty. As I observed in my comment to the post, placebos have been shown to be highly effective when patients believe in them, so you could argue that the copywriter is doing the consumer a favour by implanting the idea that homeopathic remedies are effective. For every product, there’s going to be a case for both sides – to promote or not to promote.

When it comes to representing lobbies or ethical positions that we don’t like, the position is perhaps clearer – although we could still play the ‘lawyer card’ and argue that everyone is entitled to representation, even if we don’t agree with their views. At the end of the day, it’s a personal choice.

Tangled web

Taking an ethical stance may be commendable, but setting up moral rules soon leads into some fairly grey areas – on the commercial side at least. It turns out that imposing a boundary on what’s ‘good’ or ‘bad’ is quite a challenge.

Here’s an example. I don’t eat meat. Let’s suppose I decide to bring that principle into my work, and turn down anything that involves killing animals for food. By that token, I’d probably decline an assignment for, say, a poultry farm. It’s fairly clear that the more business I drum up, the more drumsticks get churned out.

But should I promote a pie that contains meat? A restaurant that serves it? A retailer that sells it? A cookbook that tells how to cook it? Where does it end? Where do I draw the line and decide that, on this assignment, my keyboard is far enough removed from the abattoir to be in the clear? If everyone is culpable, can I really extricate myself from the tangled web, or drag myself up on to the moral high ground?

The truth is that every product or service has a harmful dimension, whether sociological, environmental, emotional or cultural. Whatever the copywriter is selling, it’s going to be hurting somebody or something somewhere. In many situations, we have to acknowledge that we’re making consumers suffer economic loss by buying a product that isn’t necessary, or adds no value. And if you accept that, then promoting any purchase that’s not strictly necessary is harmful. At the extreme, you could even argue that persuasively soliciting charitable donations from those unable to afford them does more harm than good, on balance.

Caveat emptor

Perhaps it’s best to keep away from abstractions and make our choices on a case-by-case basis. Although I don’t have any hard and fast rules, I do still consider myself to be reasonably ethical in my work. So I evaluate each assignment on its own merits, or try to. Since I have dependents, I’m probably lucky that I haven’t faced any really pressing ethical dilemmas.

In general, as you’d expect from a copywriter who blogged so enthusiastically about using weasel words, I think I tend towards the libertarian view of caveat emptor – buyer beware. It’s my job to promote as well as I can, and the audience’s job to resist or ignore me – if they can. At the end of the day, they’re not obliged to buy. That might not be a particularly moral position, but at least it’s consistent, and ‘professional’ in the very narrowest sense. So far, I can live with it.

Tom Albrighton is a freelance copywriter and founder/director of ABC Copywriting. ABC, based in Norwich, provides professional and creative copywriting services to businesses and agencies throughout the UK and Europe. Specialities include B2B marketing, SEO copywriting, website writing, articles and academic copywriting.