Ethical copywriting

I never expected my dreadful approach to car care would lead to a lesson in ethical marketing…

Anyone who’s seen or been inside my car knows that keeping it clean is not one of my strengths.

But, when I do decide the car needs a wash and vacuum – it has to happen ASAP. If things are dire – I get it detailed. Usually, I just head to a drive-through car wash. 

A few years ago, I was randomly hit by a *must-have-a-clean-car* urge and headed to the nearest servo with an automatic car wash.

Imagine my surprise when I asked the guy behind the counter for a car wash voucher and he said, ‘No’.

‘Oh, is it broken?’ I asked, disappointed.

‘No. It’s going to rain – your wash will be pointless.’

Who cares, I thought. I just wanted to get my car cleaned right there and then – so I told him it was fine.

He still refused.

‘You’ll be wasting your money – it’s going to rain.’

Despite my confused face and crinkled brow, he wouldn’t budge. I drove off in my dirty car and, sure enough, shortly afterwards fat juicy raindrops began exploding on my windscreen. Hooray for nature’s car wash 😜.

Initially I was perplexed by that guy. But I’ve never forgotten him. In fact, he often springs to mind when I’m thinking about the much debated topic of ethical marketing (and copywriting)

You see, in that moment, he put the interests of his potential customer ahead of his own – and gave up the small but certain sale.

He clearly couldn’t, in good faith, sell me something that was going to be useless.

He had no reason to believe I’d be back – although I have been – several times. I’ve also shared the story again and again. Hopefully karma has rewarded him.



When you advocate for your potential customers you help them make the right decision

The thing is, as service providers, many of us become advocates for our new clients. But I think we have opportunities to advocate for potential ones too. Even if it means losing the sale for now…

The simplest approach is not to sell your service to someone who isn’t ready or won’t get a genuine benefit from what you’re offering. (I’m looking at you car wash guy!)

After all, have you ever been inside a training program or membership with people who weren’t ready for the learnings and consequently didn’t get value for money?

I have!

Try as they might – they couldn’t make the promised progress because they didn’t have the necessary foundational knowledge or experience to build upon.

As for the outcome – the course providers got paid – maybe the participants got a certificate of completion but… The money they invested didn’t move them closer to achieving their goals.

If they’d munched on raw onions for the duration for the course, they would have finished up with a better taste in their mouth.

And it’s my guess that they probably didn’t encourage other people to join the next release. Or share a nice glowing review far and wide. They might even have whispered about their experience in the private spaces they belong to online.

So, a bad outcome for them was also (predictably perhaps) a bad outcome for the program or course owners in the longer term.

Now, it could very well be that the people selling the program were not sleazy or intending to cause harm (especially not chronic onion breath).

And, it’s not always possible to assess every potential buyer beforehand but…


Your copywriting can help people identify whether they are a great fit for your product or service – or not 


I know, I know… Your business needs sales to survive and flourish. Yet, filling your new program or membership with people who are the wrong fit isn’t going to serve you – or them – in the long run.


The DO the thing/fake it ‘til you make it/get started before you’re ready advice is fine if procrastination or perfectionism are stifling growth opportunities.


But in my humble opinion, it’s never a good idea to encourage someone to invest in something they’re truly not ready for, can’t afford or won’t benefit from.


So, whether you’re writing a sales page, an email newsletter or planning your strategy to launch a new program – don’t be afraid to be that unforgettable car wash guy.


Secure a place in your potential customer’s memory (and heart) by saying,

‘This isn’t for you right now.’


Consider having an application process for your course or program


But don’t hide the price! That potentially wastes everyone’s time and can generate its own type of awkward pressure to buy.


If an application process isn’t practical, here are some ways you can help potential clients make an educated, responsible buying decision for your offering:


  • Be specific about who your service or product is for  
  • Be just as clear about who it is not for but be careful not to use shame as a tool here 
  • Identify any pre-requisites that participants need so they can fully benefit from their purchase – whether that’s experience, a time commitment or prior learning  
  • Encourage people to consider whether the financial commitment is right for them  
  • Don’t apply pressure by inventing false scarcity or claiming to be almost sold out when you’re not… (It’s normal for a course or membership launch to run for a limited time or offer special conditions for early buyers or limited numbers – just be genuine about it).

Lastly, I get it – project discovery questionnaires, pre-purchase email questions or calls that go nowhere often feel like a waste of time but…


Instead of resenting that time – try switching how you think about it


You’re serving both yourself and your potential client by making sure you’re truly a good fit from the start. So use that discovery time to be an advocate for them – as well as your own business. 

Give them a little taste of what they can expect if they work with you. But also, give them permission and space to take a step back – without shame – and assess their position. 

So, when they decide to take their next step (whatever it is) they – and you – can feel good about that decision. 

To me – that feels like an ethical approach to marketing and copywriting that’s here to stay. Especially if you’re a purpose-led business…


What do you think?


This was Blog #1 in my series, Better Small Business Copywriting. Check out the rest of the series here.