How to Write Better Copy by Being Honest

The unflinching principle of all successful advertising … of all marketing … of all business … of all relationships … is one of the oldest success secrets in the world: "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you."

Cynics will disagree, and, unfortunately, it's the cynical view of ad copy that prevails. A good ad, the cynics say, is the one that tells the most convincing lies.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

Good ad copy will always emphasize the strong points, but great advertising campaigns must be fundamentally honest, plain, and true.

Like all great writing, great advertising is truth well told.

How do you create a great and honest advertising campaign? It's simple: Offer big, desirable solutions, establish trust with bona fide credentials, make the offer irresistible, and make the transaction easy to effect.

But what do you do if your product doesn't have a big, desirable benefit? Simple answer: You don't market it.

That's facile advice, admittedly. But if you're in a position to improve the product, copywriting time is a great time to start. Use whatever brainstorming techniques work best for you and figure out how the product could be better. Then write copy to sell that product.

If your ideas are good, the copy will sizzle. If the copy sizzles, you'll be able to convince the powers-that-be that some improvements are necessary – and would justify the cost because of the better response you'd get to your advertising.If you do all that and they still won't make any changes, find another job.

Remember this: Customers – even poorly educated ones – ain't stupid. And that's especially true when it comes to dealing with their own best interests. You can fool them once, but they'll remember the pain. And the next time you try the same trick, they'll ignore you.

All that said, it's still sometimes difficult to figure out what is good and honest copy from a regulator's point of view. Regulators, don't you know, are beholden not to common sense but to large tomes of coded laws, guidelines, and adjudications.

In England, for example, it's considered unethical to sell a product or service by provoking fear. If you have a newsletter to sell that warns against some new virus, you can print the title of the book but not its idea. "If it frightens people, it's wrong," the regulators say. But what if people should be frightened? What if the fear is valid? "Doesn't matter," the regulators say.

In America, it's illegal to sell products that narrow your chances of winning the lottery. Why? Because state lotteries want a monopoly on that gambling game. It's also illegal to claim that saw palmetto, an herb, can help cure prostate cancer – even though it can. Why can't you make that claim? Ask the AMA.

Here are some of the rules and regs that relate to advertising in the United States and some comments (John Forde's) on how to cope with them.

  1. The Better Business Bureau on puffery:

    "Superlative statements, like other advertising claims, are objective (factual) or subjective (puffery):

    "Objective claims relate to tangible qualities and performance values of a product or service that can be measured against accepted standards or tests. As statements of fact, such claims can be proved or disproved – and the advertiser should possess substantiation.

    "Subjective claims are expressions of opinion or personal evaluation of the intangible qualities of a product or service…. Subjective superlatives that tend to mislead should be avoided."

    Good Copy Principle: The more proof you can offer, says the above BBB mandate, the better. (But we know this from testing, too.) Statistics, studies, proofs all work better than vague, blanket claims. For the diligent marketer, no warning necessary.

  2. The Federal Trade Commission on disclosure:

    "The FTC looks at what the ad does not say – that is, if the failure to include information leaves consumers with a misimpression about the product. For example, if a company advertised a collection of books, the ad would be deceptive if it did not disclose that consumers actually would receive abridged versions of the books."

    Good Copy Principle: A promo that sells product but also sparks a flurry of refunds is not a good promo. Refunds are just delayed sales you didn't make. And when customers don't receive what you advertised, refunds are what you'll get. Far better is to promise strong but deliver stronger.

  3. The Better Business Bureau on testimonials:

    "In general, advertising that uses testimonials or endorsements is likely to mislead or confuse if it: is not genuine and does not actually represent the current opinion of the endorser…is not quoted in its entirety, thereby altering its overall meaning and impact…contains representations or statements that would be misleading if otherwise used in advertising…broad claims are made as to endorsements or approval by indefinitely large or vague groups, e.g., 'the homeowners of America,' 'the doctors of America'…"

    Good Copy Principle: The Better Business Bureau warning goes on, but you get the idea. If you use testimonials, make sure they're from credible sources … real sources … and specific sources. But you don't need a moralist to tell you that. The more real a testimonial, the more persuasive it is too.

    The BBB's list of incidental copywriting advice goes on…

    "Layout of advertisements should minimize misunderstanding by the reader…. Before a company runs an ad, it has to have a reasonable basis for its claims…. Ads that make health or safety claims must be supported by … tests, studies, or other scientific evidence that has been evaluated by people qualified to review it."

All of these are principles not only of honest copy but of persuasive copy too. You barely have to think about it.

Be sure to try reinterpreting the list to see the overlap between honest copy and copy principles that actually work better to persuade.

[The above article "How to Write Better Copy by Being Honest" is from Michael Masterson's daily e-mail service, Early to Rise. For a FREE membership, simply visit Early to Rise]

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Published: September 16, 2002

1 Response to “How to Write Better Copy by Being Honest”

  1. Hi John and Michael

    Like all great writing, great advertising is truth well told . (your quote)

    Yes,I think that's true.

    But,how would one be able to tell the truth better?

    I have been caught telling the plain truth...but because I didn't know when to shut up...that truth was precieved to be too good to be true...or lacking something.



    PS: I love your writings


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