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Can Honest Copywriting Succeed?

September 6, 2006
Shel Horowitz writes today's guest article. I've been a long-time fan of
Shel, the author of "Principled Profit: Marketing That Puts People First"
(which I totally agreed with!), "Grassroots Marketing: Getting Noticed in a
Noisy World," and 5 other books. He is the originator of the Business Ethics
campaign to change the world (to which I pledged!).  Shel's sites offer hundreds of useful articles for entrepreneurs and marketers, including the complete back issues of his
monthly Frugal Marketing Tips.

Let's have a nice Advisor welcome for Shel! - Jill

Can Honest Copywriting Succeed?
By Shel Horowitz

I confess -- I'm a marketing heretic! I've built my career on breaking all
the rules -- and one of the rules I break is that I don't hype.

Do I put the best possible "spin" on the truth? Of course! But I refuse to
deceive my readers into action.

What are some of the common copywriter tricks that I *leave on the table?*

Here are a few to start:

"If you order in the next 24 hours, you get... " (Let's face it. If you come
back tomorrow, the offer will almost always still hold.)

"Get all these bonuses, valued at $2999, for free with your $100 order."
(Yeah, right! And who set the value of these gifts? And are they for sale
anywhere on the open market at these prices? Is anyone actually buying

"Here's the information you requested." (A GREAT statement -- IF it's true
-- but I get five or six a day in my e-box from companies I've never heard

"Hi there, long-lost friend." (And you sent it BCC?)

So why don't I like these copywriting lies? And how do I write copy without
resorting to these deceits?

Well, first of all, I believe that if I want my words to sell a product,
that product should be strong enough to do so without tricking the buyer. I
know that if I trick someone, I may make a sale -- but I've lost a customer
for life! Whereas if I show the merits, back up my claims, and focus on the
way this product solves a problem, eases a hurt or fear, or satisfies a
need, I will build that lifetime relationship.

Oh, and one more thing. I like to look in the mirror and see someone who is
doing good for the world -- and I don't think lies and trickery will
accomplish that. I happen to have a gift for writing, and I use that gift to
make the world better. That includes being honest with myself and with my

About half the work I do is in the publishing industry. And here, the
competition is fierce. In the U.S. -- just in 2004 -- 181,189 new books were
published. Most of them will fail. My job is to help my clients' books stand
out in this dense crowd.

Example: I wrote a press release for a book on electronic privacy issues.
Here's my headline and lead. (Another rule I broke: Never use the headline
as the lead sentence. It's the only time I've ever done it that way, but in
this case, I think the repetition made the point stronger. Names have been
changed to protect the author's privacy.)

[release lead]
It's 10 O'Clock -- Do You Know Where Your Credit History Is?

HIBBING, MN: It's 10 o'clock -- Do you know where your credit history is?
How about your employment records? Your confidential medical information?

How would you feel if you found out this sensitive and should-be-private
material is "vacationing" in computer databanks around the world --
accessible to corporate interests who can afford to track down and purchase
it, but not necessarily open to your own inspection?

According to electronic privacy journalist and technology consultant
Mortimer Gaines, this scenario is all too common.
[/release lead]

No falsehoods, no hype -- but a whole lot more captivating than the usual
"New Book on Electronic Privacy Released by Publisher."

Without tricking people, I want to capture interest... move the reader to
action... and still feel good about myself in the morning.

Yes, it can be done! I do it for clients every day, and have done so for
more than 20 years.

Shel Horowitz
How to market ethically/effectively
Ethics blog