Selling something involves convincing the buyer to act. Copywriting is essentially selling through the written (or spoken) word. How do you know if a copywriter is being persuasive–truly convincing– or just manipulative? And does it matter if the result is the same? This is definitely a question worth exploring.
Some manipulation is easy to spot. “If you cared about me, you would ____.” Whatever fills in the blank, this phrase is clearly telling the person that if he doesn’t do what is asked, it proves he doesn’t care. There’s no allowance for a third choice, for “I love you, but I choose not to do that.” (Perhaps even because of love.) The phrase doesn’t give the person a way to refuse freely. It’s all for the benefit of the one asking, so he can get the other person to do what he wants.
Consider Hallmark’s slogan from a few years back, “When you care enough to send the very best.” Is that just a statement that Hallmark thinks they have the best cards? Or is it a subtle manipulation, a way of saying that if you don’t choose Hallmark, you really don’t care that much? All selling, including copywriting, will invoke an emotional response to be effective. The Hallmark example appeals to people’s desire to have the best, and to show they care: pride and love, two very strong emotions. Yet the phrase does allow room for choice, and I don’t find it manipulative, but some sensitive people might. So how do you really know?
The words themselves are not a reliable indicator. You may not even be able to answer this question from the copy itself. It comes down to the copywriter, and three key questions.
What does he think about people? Does the copywriter view people as having intrinsic worth and dignity? Manipulation violates people by attempting to deprive them of free choice. Someone who views people as just a means to an end or a resource worth exploiting won’t care about that. Someone who values people will, and will try to avoid any manipulation.
Second, what does he think about the product or service? The copywriter may never actually use the product, but can still endorse the premise or believe in the company or have respect for the product or service in some way. For example, a woman would not use a supplement for prostate health. Does she believe in the value of supplements in general? She’d be a better choice for a copywriter than a man who thinks all supplements are snake oil. If the copywriter does not have some respect for the product, he’ll do whatever he needs to in order to sell it, including manipulate.
Finally, what does he think of himself? Does his personal code of ethics allow manipulation in order to get the desired action, or does he resist it? A copywriter unwilling to manipulate will be less inclined to do it, even accidentally.
So why does it matter? If you hire a copywriter and the copy produces the desired action, why should you care whether it’s manipulating people?
People who are manipulated may comply and do the thing desired, but such a response is coerced, not freely given. When people act against their free will, they will become resentful. Even if they don’t recognize the manipulation, they will recognize that they don’t feel right about what they have done. Do you want resentment and other negative thoughts associated with your product or service?
You should also care because of the issues above. Someone who manipulates does not value people, may not believe in your product or service, and may not have strong ethics or be trustworthy. You may not care about manipulation if you get the results you seek, but you should care about those things.
The line between manipulation and persuasion may sometimes be very fine. A copywriter who respects people, believes in the clients and their products or services, and has integrity will avoid manipulation and treat the client and prospects the way they should be treated.