by Sarah on February 7, 2010



My daughter was caught lying.

It was a simple issue – she had gone online to look at videos when she was supposed to be working on her Japanese.  But instead of fessing up, she concocted a story about using Google to find a definition for a Japanese word.

Now it’s a small thing in some ways.  Kids are notorious for playing when they’re supposed to be buckling down.

 But it’s huge in its ramifications. The major transgression here was her lie.  And trust isn’t something you can play with.

For years, she’s trumped her younger brother in many a dispute because she has a reputation for honesty.  Often we’ve used her spotless record to prod him to be more forthcoming.  He’s had to work hard to make his arguments hold water since he has such a tendency to embroider the truth.

But my girl – she’s been reliable . . . until for some fluke – today.  Or maybe not . . .

See that’s the terrible consequence she faced when she stepped into the world of fabrication.  She no longer has that credibility with us.  All the past was left in doubt.  And even more significant . . .

Everything she said from now one would have to be backed up with evidence.  We couldn’t just take her on her word.  She’s going to have to work hard to regain this trust that took so little time to disintegrate.

This is the importance of truthfulness in advertising. 

As people get to know you, they begin to trust you.  And that trust transfers over not only to the immediate sales letter you just sent them . . . but to the next one and the next one.  It builds up.  It makes selling easier.

But be caught lying – even in one small bit – and that trust is shattered.  You’ve got mountains to climb to get back there.

Garden of Life’s Jordan Rubin hit this when his Ph D was questioned.  Tiger Woods’ sponsors faced this when his integrity showed some cracks.  I’m sure you can come up with plenty of examples yourself.

Now, I bring this up for a very specific reason.  As a copywriter, I work to create rapport between the market and the person I’m writing as (the company CEO, health expert in residence, etc.)  As a copywriter, I’m used to putting words in people’s mouth.  It’s like being a speechwriter when you write a sales letter for somebody.  I don’t fabricate any of the info I put together – but in some ways I’m putting on a façade as I write in someone else’s name.

But what happens with social media?  What happens when you hit Twitter or comment on forums or blog in another person’s name?  Can you still do this?  Is it a breach of trust?  Does the public assume that some tweets are carefully crafted by professionals-for-hire?  Are they okay with that? Or if I write in someone else’s name is that a lie?

And I’ll add an even stickier layer with a recent large online revelation.  Copywriter James Chartrand revealed that he was actually a she.  She had taken a male penname because she found she got more, better-paying clients when she presented herself as a man.  In the Copyblogger blog where she told the truth, her self-disclosure was taken with a warm round of applause.  But how about her clients?  Was there fallout?

Plenty of copywriters (like Michael Masterson) take pen names – I’ve thought about it myself to protect my privacy.  (Full disclosure:  I don’t.) But how does this factor into the age of social media, transparency, and relationship-building.

As James (or Jamie, now?) made it clear:  It’s only a matter of time before someone uncovers the truth if they really want to.  You’ve got to be prepared with an explanation.

On one hand, I feel that if the idea of using a professional writer in social media makes you feel conned, you’ve got a certain naivete about the world.  As much as we feel buddy-buddy in chat rooms, it’s not the same as really getting to know someone.  Face to face.  And to expect that it is the same is not understanding that we’re still communicating through the safe distance of our machines.

But as copywriters, we also write to tap into people’s emotions – again, building trust and asking people to let down their defenses.  And it’s not something to take lightly.

I don’t have a conclusion here.  I’m trying to sort through this myself.  I’m working on marketing projects that require tweeting and intimate-feeling emails.  And so much of this is new, it’s hard to find tested results and best-practices.

 But it’s an important question for us copywriters to broach as we move online and then into the social realm.   I’m asking you to help me and all of us tuning in here to sort through this.  What do you think?  What guidelines do you use for online honesty?  I’m all ears.


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