Are you an ethical copywriter?

by Lilani Goonesena
04 November 2019

A couple of weeks ago, a copywriting pitch opportunity came my way – to write a branded content piece for one of the sponsors of this year’s Melbourne Cup. 

I really wanted to work with the brand… but less so for the Melbourne Cup. I love animals and so, I don’t particularly enjoy horse racing, or animal sports of any kind. But that aside, I was definitely keen to work with this particular brand, a well-known and popular Australian icon. 

But as I started researching for my pitch, I became more disturbed… and conflicted. Google “racehorses” these days and the results are awash with the aftermath of the recent investigations into racehorse cruelty and illegal deaths. 

And I wondered, do other copywriters feel conflict around writing for some industries and brands? What is considered unethical? And where do you draw the line between personal values and your job as a professional copywriter?

What other copywriters think

I asked some of my copywriter friends what they thought. And I was surprised by the intensity of emotions and opinions this subject raised. 

“I wouldn’t write for the Melbourne Cup,” said one freelance copywriter adamantly. “Never listen to it or watch it and I live in Melbourne.”

“No,” said a Canberra writer. “Socially conscious businesses are my niche so I have a statement on my website that says I don’t work for businesses if their services or products are not good for people, their health or the planet.”

Another Melbourne writer said, “For me, it would be a no, too. Even if the company themselves are otherwise awesome, if they sponsor events like the Melbourne Cup, then they’re not my kind of people.”

Where do you draw the line?

The conversation then moved onto ethics around writing for other industries. 

“I’m a contract tech writer and I’d never worked for tobacco companies or Telstra or the NAB. I’ve told recruiters this upfront,” said one Melbourne-based copywriter. 

Said another Qld-based, vegan writer, “I wouldn’t (knowingly) work with brands that support rodeos, live exports, animal agriculture or the dairy industry; cosmetics brands that test on animals or include animal products⁠; horse or dog racing of any kind⁠; or any brand that is racist or promotes unhealthy body images.”

“For me there are some clear cut ‘bad guys’ like the Melbourne Cup or Nestlé, which I want nothing to do with,” said another Melbourne writer. “I wouldn’t write for the Catholic Church but I’d write for a real estate agency who sponsored a Catholic school fete because I’d see that as supporting the kids and the community, not the church itself.”

When there are shades of grey

Others I spoke to considered the copywriting and ethics issue more holistically. 

“I’ve worked with some of the sponsor brands in my corporate career, including primary sponsor Lexus,” said a NSW writer. “So, even though I am not a fan of horse racing, it would not necessarily deter me from working with the brands entirely.”

“I wouldn’t write for the Melbourne Cup but I’d definitely write for one of the wine brands that would no doubt have a tent there,” said another Sydney copywriter. “Life is full of grey. Rationally, I know alcohol is Australia’s most dangerous drug. But personally, I enjoy it, so I can jump through mental hoops to justify it. But I don’t smoke or gamble, so they are no go’s. Everyone’s line is different.”

“I actually don’t know the answer to this one, “ said a Sydney writer. “I guess I could find fault with every company I’ve written for. But then again, I don’t think there’s such a thing as the perfect company. So it’s a gut thing. If it doesn’t feel right, don’t do it.”

What I decided to do

I didn’t end up pitching for that job. And not because I’d definitely decided for or against it. In my gut, I just felt… conflicted and uncomfortable. 

Would it have been different if I were a newbie writer and trying to build a portfolio? Yes, I think so. I would have gone for the job and reminded myself of all other admirable things this company does – supporting minimal packaging, recycling wastewater and sourcing Fairtrade ingredients for its products. Sponsoring one event shouldn’t define a brand. 

Are ethics a luxury then? We writers are sensitive souls that love to believe in causes. We’re also extremely persuasive. Perhaps we can persuade ourselves to back or ignore our ethics depending on our own circumstances. 

Are ethics a luxury or a necessity in your writing? Would you write for the Melbourne Cup?

Lilani Goonesena

Lilani Goonesena is a freelance copywriter for business and government. Based in Canberra, she also does SEO research and strategy, web design, branding and social. You can find her online @ligocreative or ligocreative.com.
Lilani Goonesena

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2 responses on "Are you an ethical copywriter?"

  1. Hi Lilani – I think I saw the same job (or a very similar one) and likewise, I didn’t pitch. I didn’t have to think about it too much, but I love the way you’ve teased it out and examined all the shades of grey, as you say. Excellent and though-provoking article. Thanks.

  2. Beverley says:

    Thoughtful and thought-provoking piece, Lilani. Thank you for that. I don’t write for brands, as a rule, but I’ve had commissions for stories I didn’t want to see my byline on. It is tricky though as you never know where else commissioners are going to pop up so you don’t want to put them offside. I usually just say I’m too busy to take the job on.

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