Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Promoting Something You Don't Believe In: The Copywriter's Conundrum

I found this post over at Bob Bly's blog about what to do when you don't think the product you're writing copy for will sell. A lot of writers simply said they'd let the client know about their reservations but give it a try anyway. I have two things to say about this: a). I personally wouldn't want to work on a project I wasn't passionate about, but we can't be that lucky all the time; and b). people buy bottled water. If you spin it right, it's possible people will buy anything.

My work tends more towards educational web content than sales copy. However, educational content can also be promotional, in a more subtle way, and I'm under no illusions about the fact that my copy sells just like a sales letter does--sometimes better, according to my clients. Sure, I'd like to think of myself as an "educator" first and foremost. But if there weren't money to be made from my writing, I wouldn't be getting paid.

In some ways, it's worse when you run into a problem like the one Bob outlined and you're writing educational copy. With a sales letter, your job is to find the product's selling points. With educational copy, your job is to provide information the consumer needs, in the hope that he will come to trust and respect your company enough to buy from you. You can't just put the right spin on--you have to be honest, or you'll undermine your efforts the minute your customers decide to do a little more research. For educational writers, it's not about whether the product will sell--but whether the product works the way the client wants you to say it does.

Once I was hired to write content for a website promoting a weight loss supplement. It sounded fine when I started, but in the course of my research I found that all the scientific studies on this particular supplement showed it didn't work. My job was to write educational content on how the supplement works and how to use it effectively--but the problem was that it didn't work at all.

I felt stuck. I'd already accepted a deposit and signed an agreement. And yet I didn't feel comfortable writing lies. I brought my concerns up to the client--I didn't know what else to do. Eventually the client decided I wasn't the right writer for the project. I've thought about the situation a lot since; I thought maybe I could have handled it better, but I really couldn't bring myself to write educational copy that wasn't actually educational. It's tough to guard against these things, as sometimes you don't know enough about the topic until you've gotten hired and done the research.

So today's post isn't a how-to; it's more of a what-would-you-do. What would you do in this situation? Have you ever been faced with something like this? What are your thoughts?


Anonymous said...

Ahh, a great debate. Here's my take on it:

If I know the work goes strongly against my personal beliefs, then I don't write it, period. I'd rather turn away the money than feel bad that I've gone against my own values.

If I'm into the project and I discover I'm not comfortable, I do one of two things:

1. Advise the client of how I feel the content might negatively impact his audience. This way, I'm not saying that *I* don't agree. I say that he might land himself in hot water with readers and site visitors. Sometimes we can find a compromise on wording.

2. Write in a way that doesn't promote the item, offers the cons in a positive way and stresses the potential dangers without blatantly saying "don't do this."

For example, I had some recent work to do on questionable herbal supplements. The more research I did, the more it presented the product as being seriously dangerous for human consumption... but I had to offer an objective text. So I did - objectively, clearly, and in a non-damaging way for the client. The message to the reader - don't take this - was clear, but the buyer still looked like he was a resource for good, solid information. He just wasn't going to sell much of that particular product.

Tricky, but doable.

Jennifer Williamson said...

Hi James,

That seems like a good way to handle it. My problem was that my client specifically wanted writing that presented the product in a positive light--which was pretty tough for me to do. But if client really does want the website to be a resource, it'll need to present the facts as-is.

Anonymous said...

This is a tough situation. When I was starting out, I was hired to write a couple of testimonials for a product I thought was ineffective, though not damaging. I did it, but when I think about it, it's not work I'm proud of. If I had it to do over, I would probably turn the project down.

Jennifer Williamson said...

Debra, I think a lot of us have had projects we don't feel great about taking on--I've got a few, too. Like anything else, it's a learning experience deciding which projects to take on and which just don' seem right.

Unknown said...

Jennifer, I'd not want to do it, either. Would I do it? That would depend. In the case you brought up, no. I couldn't. In the case where a dude is writing a book and stealing from other writers (with minimal attribution) - well, I was there. I told him he needed to attribute. He ignored me. I was editing, not writing, amen. I told him his book needed more of his thoughts and less of everyone else's. He ignored me. And when I edited out those things that were going to get him sued, he fired me. Amen. Nightmare project from start to finish!

Jennifer Williamson said...

Lori--what a scary situation! I hardly ever say this, but it's a good thing you got fired :-)

Anonymous said...

Hi Jennifer,
I have been following your blog regularly, but I haven't posted anything because I haven't had anything interesting to say.
I recently submitted a post to Deb Ng's site saying that acting was a lot like blogging. You take on a persona to fulfill a role to promote something. Now, I would like to make a distinction - when you are acting you can differentiate yourself from the part you are playing, but when you are blogging you are very conscious of how your opinion may influence others in their marketing or buying decisions. Yes, it is a matter of ethics, I agree with you.
I have worked as a teacher, and it was always my main impetus to get students to think for themselves. I still try to accomplish that through my writing efforts. When I am paid to blog, I never try to promote one side over the other; I would rather give a balanced viewpoint.
It is very difficult, and it is a serious conundrum. I think we will deal with it our entire writing lives.

Susan Johnston Taylor said...

Debra brings up another can of worms: writing testimonials. Presumably these are supposed to be from customers, so that always makes me a little uncomfortable.

D'na Rahat said...

Rosser Reeves said it best when he proclaimed that "A gifted product is mightier than a gifted pen."

I think it should be every copywriter's duty to ask enough questions about a client's product/service before taking any money from them.

I realise that's easier said than done sometimes; but if you don't want to end up in these types of situations I think it's imperative.

Anyway, just my take. By the by, great blog, Jennifer! I've only just discovered you this very evening, and have thoroughly enjoyed reading!

Anonymous said...

This is quite difficult in a writer's side. It's hard to create an essay paper or a masterpiece without having sufficient knowledge on the topic. It can be very difficult to write about something that is unfamiliar. But as a professional writer I have to do some research just to make myself familiarize on the topic and to do my job properly.