Pesticide companies. Industrial meat processors. A major US political party. What do they have in common?
They’re all clients I refuse to work for. As a copywriter, I’m vain enough to believe my words have power—to persuade, sell and move people to action. And I don’t want to move people to buy pesticides.
Lest you think me a politically correct prig who writes only for organic farmers and crunchy clothes makers, I confess my clients include pharmaceutical manufacturers and a petrochemical company. I’ve made peace with the products I market for these clients, if not the industries themselves.
Likely, you wrestle with similar ambiguities. Because when you write marcom copy—or otherwise market products for others—sooner or later, you face ethical decisions.
How will you make them?
Copywriters’ rock-and-a-hard-place project decisions
Do you really have a choice? Between the lousy economy, content mill outsourcing and industry implosions, it’s harder than ever for freelance writers to command living-wage fees. So when a well-paying—but ethically iffy—job rolls around it’s easy, even understandable, to cop a “beggars can’t be choosers” attitude.
And truth be told, sometimes ethical boundaries aren’t crystal clear. Some products and their makers seem harmless. At first.
Little Red Riding Writer enters the dark woods.
I recently caught a glimpse of marketing’s “dark side” when researching a prospective client, a New York City marketing agency. While visiting their website, I noticed they produced a video for a well-known US bank. Click.
Meet your warm and fuzzy corporate raider.
The video opened with an angled close-up of a pretty gospel singer standing in the bank’s boardroom. (Doesn’t every bank have an on-site soul singer?) Swaying in front of the room’s glass wall, the singer belted a descanted refrain: “The reeeeeeealllllllll thing. Yeaeeeeh….Reeeeaaaaal…”
Then the camera cut to bank employees. Close ups of their faces. Cut ins to their hands. The rank-and-file office workers shared emotional reflections on their relationships with customers. “When customers call, they want to talk to a real person.” “We really care.”
The employees also adored their co-workers. They testified to “being there” for each other. They recalled office birthday parties and stuffed animals planted on workmates’ desks.
Their stories were interspersed with frequent cuts back to the gospel singer, “The reeeeeeealllllllll thing. Yeaeeeeh….Reeeeaaaaal…”
Wow. This place is something special. Unlike most corporate financial institutions, they really care.
Is manipulative messaging unethical?
It was jarring. Because everyone knows the bank grew fat through cutthroat mergers and acquisitions in the 90s and aughts. During the 2008 financial fire sales, one of their takeovers forced shareholders to lose all their equity.
On the consumer side, this faceless corporate giant is anything but caring. Just try to get a real person on the line when you have a billing question. And you will have questions. Regularly. About their credit cards’ hidden APR hikes, surprise finance charges and sneak service fees that mire countless Americans in consumer debt.
“The reeeeeeealllllllll thing. Yeaeeeeh….Reeeeaaaaal…”
I know, I know. This bank’s practices are no worse than any others’. Industry consolidation is the American way. Robotic voice menus are universal. And consumers choose to go into debt. (I’ll argue this, but not now.)
Where do you draw the line?
So why did the agency’s video rile me so?
Couple of things I can pinpoint. I felt the video was…
Manipulative and deceptive. Yes, all marketing is manipulative in its use of emotion to hook and engage consumers. But this video went too far. It used art, behavioral psychology and technology to grossly misrepresent the bank. It distorted the realities of the company’s culture and customer relations.
Poisoned Kool Aid. Here’s something scarier: The bank—and its marketing agency—may well be unconscious of their deception. In their fervent desire to appear compassionate and caring, they may actually believe their own corporate fairy tale.
So I decided not to pursue work with the bank’s marketers.
Does your work enable big brand dysfunctional thinking?
Despite growing consumer cynicism, many corporations seem oblivious that their brand perception is not shared by customers.
But here’s the question: Do you perceive the dissonance? And if you do, will you still promote the product?
Lorraine Thompson is a freelance New York copywriter. Please contact her to discuss your copy project and content marketing needs. And follow her–WritersKitchen on Twitter.
Photo courtesy of Official Start Wars Blog.