Ethics in Copywriting: When Your Words are Powerful

How many times has "Just Do It" crossed your mind as you've laced up for a workout, even if you're not wearing anything made by Nike?

As a copywriter, I understand the power of words. They can shape how people perceive a company or product. Beyond that, they can impact our beliefs and self-image. And they can even transform how we view our world and experience our culture. 

Words influence. Inspire. Motivate.

On occasion, someone directs me to write copy that makes me uncomfortable. The impact I have as a copywriter has danced in my head like a bouncy ball for years. Touchy subjects for me have included advertising Photoshopping services for teenagers' school pictures and promoting diversity claims that feel a little too empty. 

When we're the hands behind the keyboard, is it our job to be a "yes" person or stick to our values? For me, I feel a sense of responsibility for the work I help put out into the world. When I write, I think about the people who will read what I'm saying. How will this impact them now and in the future?

Pushing back on your internal team or the client is rarely pleasant, though, especially when it can affect the project timeline, budget or add more work to the mix. When I feel fear or doubt bubble up, I remind myself of Dr. Brene Brown's definition of integrity:

"Integrity is choosing courage over comfort. You choose what is right over what is fun, fast or easy. And you choose to practice your values rather than simply professing them."

I tell myself that doing what you believe to be right is supposed to be hard. For the teenagers' school photos, instead of only writing about the editing options, I also included that, "you're beautiful just the way you are." Genuinely, I think that's how young people deserve to feel.

I stood up to show representation in image selection because I knew the copy I wrote mentioned a commitment to diversity and inclusion. Throughout my career, I've fact-checked and challenged claims that aren't feeling truthful enough. 

Copywriters aren't the only people who have the power to make ripples. Advertising takes a village. From the strategists to the creative directors and account managers, we're all in this together. 

Strategists can set us up well from the start. Account teams can make a difference with their magic relationship-building skills, convincing a client of a new perspective. Anyone who directs, reviews and approves the work can use their experience and confidence to set an example for junior team members who might be too nervous to speak up. 

After all of this time filling blank Word docs, I've learned that while I feel bound to do my job ethically, I can't do it alone. Anyone can edit my copy — oh, and they do. People say no to my suggestions. It happens all of the time. What I can do, without needing approval, is encourage everyone to question their responsibilities as well.

We all have the power to influence — for better or worse. 

Which will you choose?

Written by Meghan Smith on June 30, 2021


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Written by
Meghan Smith
Associate Director of Content