Are some copywriters’ techniques unethical?

I’ve been reading Maria Veloso’s excellent Web Copy That Sells. Much of her advice is in line with standard copywriting principles, but Maria also strays into Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) in her quest to write copy that sells.

Maria discusses embedded commands, presuppositions, linguistic binds and reframing as methods for writing irresistible copy. All of these techniques, if properly applied, can work to persuade your reader without them quite knowing why they’ve been persuaded. In Maria’s own words:

“These are tactics that fly beneath the radar of your readers’ perception, producing an almost hypnotic effect that actually makes them want to buy what you are selling – often without knowing why.”

Maria goes on to counsel copywriters to use these techniques “discreetly, responsibly and ethically”, but is it really possible to use such techniques ethically? Are they not unethical by their very nature?

I’m not saying I think Maria’s techniques are unethical; I’m just asking the question because it seems like a very grey area. Even if you’re selling something wonderful and your customers will indeed be better off for buying it, surely that’s for them to decide. If you use tricks that work on a reader’s subconscious, are you not taking away part of their ability to make a rational choice? At what point, if any, does persuasive copy become unethical?


  1. Leif,

    This poses several questions.

    First, how can they be unethical? NLP is just a tool, nothing more. It’s no more capable of being ethical or unethical than is a kitchen knife. It’s not even the use to which you put it, either.

    Using the kitchen knife analogy again, is using a kitchen knife for an act of violence wrong?

    The answer is “it depends”. If I use it to butcher my kids, then yes, I suspect most people would agree it is wrong; but if I use it to defend my kids against a maniac who intends to butcher them them himself, then I equally suspect most people would think this not wrong.

    So surely, it’s the INTENT behind the use?

    And there is also some merit in the argument “if you genuinely believe your products and services are in your prospects’ best interests to buy, then it’s your DUTY to get them to buy by whatever means necessary”. This is perhaps a little too close to the old “the ends justifies the means” argument and I’m not personally convinced by it, but it’s not simply black and white.

    Secondly, NLP is a HUGE subject, and in the copywriting and persuasion context we’re talking about only a very tiny piece of it. The origins of NLP are in modelling the actions and behaviours of successful people. In which case, how can using NLP be unethical when it’s merely a codified form of what naturally persuasive people have been doing for as long as we’ve had language?

    If you look back over the work of Robert Collier, you’ll see many NLP-like patterns and structures. But he wrote in 1937, so he cannot POSSIBLY have been using NLP. Does that means we can retrospectively call him “unethical”.

    No, of course not.

    As for “[using] tricks that work on a reader’s subconscious”, we’re all doing it all of the time, whether we use NLP or not. Robert Cialdini discovered there are 6 main psychological concepts we use for influence and persuasion: liking, authority, reciprocity, commitment and consistency, social proof, and scarcity.

    These are present in ALL cultures across the world and they’re an intrinsic part of the way our brains are put together. In his book, “Influence: the psychology of persuasion” he posits some compelling hypotheses why these traits have genuine evolutionary advantage for us.

    Finally, there is the uber-presupposition: NLP in copy works. That’s a biggie because I am unaware of any verifiable, reproducible and properly controlled double-blind evidence to show it does.

    There IS a wealth of evidence to suggest we are influenced by rapport in response to our facial expressions and postures, etc. (see Emotional Contagion), but the evidence also suggests the facial and postural mirroring is too fast and subtle to be within conscious control.

    Frankly, anyone claiming NLP in copywriting is some kind of magic, a Sith Lord’s mind-control silver-bullet is mistaken at best and at worst a damned liar.

    Truth is, and I say this as a copywriter AND certified NLP practitioner myself, copy is only the third most important thing about sales and marketing pieces.

    The most important is the audience. I challenge anyone to sell me a homoeopathic remedy, no matter who’s writing the copy and how much bloody NLP “compulsion” they put in there. Homoeopathy is not supported by any scientific evidence. It doesn’t work, so I don’t buy into it or buy it. In contrast, I invite you to consider my friend who sells top-notch dieting books at $50 a time and converts his list of hot prospects at 25% with frankly very ordinary copy.

    The next most important thing is your offer to the list. If it’s a bad offer, then even a hot list won’t be interested. I love books. I buy hundreds of them every year. I’m an easy sale. But the offer still has to be right — offer me a book but then tell me I have to queue up for 3 hours to get it in your shop, then you won’t sell me many. Post it to me by overnight, and you’ve got a deal (and the price will be pretty much irrelevant).

    And then, and only then is it the copy. And I will be the first one to admit once you have the right audience and you’ve got the right offer then the copy counts for a lot and NLP will maybe help you if you use it well.

    These charlatans make extraordinary claims when trying to sell you on NLP (is it cynical to suppose they might be trying to sell you a book or a course or something?). They claim they can “hypnotise” you with the written word, and “compel” you to buy. Nonsense.

    Where is the extraordinary evidence? It’s simply not good enough to sell $1,000,000 in products from a sales letter and then claim your copy was king.

    Doesn’t it strike you as just a little odd these people are making their money selling you $297 products and seminars, when if their powers to hypnotise, persuade, and compel were truly as God-like as they claim… wouldn’t they be using them to sell $25,000,000 yachts and the like, thus making far, Far FAR bigger profits than they are from their products and seminars?

    There are so many other factors and to substantiate any real claims there must be that pesky objective, repeatable evidence from controlled double-blind testing.

    There is none.

    What we never get to see are the failures. What we never get to see are the testimonials from the people who buy these NLP copywriting products and who do not make the massive gains promised by the hype. Any amount of success is meaningless unless considered in light of the failures.

    People believe to be true what they want to be true. And don’t you think it’s likely people struggling to make sales WANT to believe it’s merely a matter of fixing their copy, and there’s a magic trick they can use to perform it?

    And if you’re thinking their power to manipulate you is proof of their power to manipulate others, think again. If you feel persuaded by this kind of talk… it’s mostly because you’re already half-sold on the idea. You want it to be true. You’re the right audience.

    They’re telling you what you want to hear, and you’re only too happy to listen.

    You know the real unqualified success of NLP?

    Selling NLP books, products, and seminars.

    — Jon

    Comment by Jon McCulloch — June 1, 2008 @ 9:23 am

  2. […] recent commenter on this blog (Jon McCulloch) mentioned that copy is not the only important factor in determining the […]

    Pingback by Having trouble selling? | Kendall Copywriting — June 10, 2008 @ 12:56 pm

  3. I think it’s super impressive the amount of basic NLP principles and best practices you’ve used in writing a 220-word blog post that heavily implies NLP is inethical when writing persuasive web copy.

    I get that that post is about 12 years old so I wonder if you even realize you’ve done this as you’ve gone back and optimized this post over and again. If NLP is “inethical” in writing web copy, then so is the entire discipline dedicated to hacking algorithms and presupposing your audience is at near capacity of barely literate consumers, thus detracting from the validity of this argument at all.

    Furthermore, as a copywriter you should be well aware that most clients won’t care if it’s ethical as long as it converts.

    Comment by Em Seikkanen — August 27, 2020 @ 9:48 am

  4. Hi Em!

    Firstly, I had to re-read the article to have any clue about any of your points. As you noted, this is a very old article.

    It’s so old that I don’t remember this book at all, so I can’t recall much of the details about NLP.

    This entire article is clearly just a case of me reading a book, having a thought, and then deciding to chuck it on the internet.

    However, I stand by the central question. I don’t have an answer to it. I just think it’s a valid question.

    Indeed, when we’ve done online workshops on behavioural psychology and persuasion (at ProCopywriters), the discussion often comes around to questions of ethics.

    So I think plenty of people do wonder about this stuff.

    Oh, and the idea that I’ve optimised this tiny post in any way is hysterical. I wrote it in a hurry and then moved on. I even failed to reply to Jon McCulloch’s brilliant comment below, a failure that I’m deeply troubled by.

    But thanks for leaving a comment. You’re the quite the internet archaeologist! (I mean that in a good way)

    Comment by Leif Kendall — August 27, 2020 @ 10:06 am

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