True lies: copywriting and the enduring art of ‘honest deception’

By Andrew Boulton

July 13, 2015 | 4 min read

As a boy, I returned home from school one day to find my pet rabbit was not, as was his habit, gurning at me with little discernible affection from his shabbily constructed pen. My mother awkwardly informed me that he had been ‘taken’ by an owl. It seemed reasonable.

Only now, years later, when people openly scoff at such an unlikely sequence of events do I suspect I have been duped. It was my first meaningful encounter with a lie.

It is, I’m told, not untypical for an act of parental betrayal in the formative years to shape your future in grim and anxious ways. However I choose to believe this was my first step on the road to copywriting.

Perhaps generously, I prefer to equate my job as a copywriter with my mum’s decision to concoct a fabulous reality rather than share a mundanely upsetting version where the rabbit quietly choked on an oddly proportioned sunflower seed. We are, after all, in the business of lies.

Ok, so perhaps ‘lies’ is a little strong. But there is more than a whiff of self-serving semantics when we try to explain away out editorial interventions as ‘repackaging’ or ‘reordering’ the cold, hard information. To take a hint of brilliance and present it with far more prominence than it relatively merits may not be a lie as such – but neither is it any more than a distant cousin to the truth.

But of course that is the job – to bring forth the incredible, dampen down the uninspiring, bury the unappealing. That is, in not so many words, the content of every brief a copywriter can ever expect to address. We are at best, exaggerators. At worst, we are alphabetical pimps.

Our copywriting forebears embraced the art of the lie with more verve and far less discretion than that which buoys the modern professional. Selling cigarettes is a famous example, where writers would promise everything from sexual allure to athletic prowess to persuade tentative smokers.

Nowadays, the content of an advert is less willfully ignorant of little things like health risks and irresponsible claims. But that’s not to say it doesn’t still play a part.

Admittedly, a copywriter is subject to exacting regulatory compliance that prevents unsubstantiated claims or mischievously disingenuous wording. And yet if you read the marketing material for, as an example, a pay day loan that comes with four-figure interest rates, you may get the impression that it’s a semi-altruistic, not to mention entirely innocuous exchange.

And in this instance a copywriter would have done their job properly. For we are not the originators of these dubious ‘rearrangements of information’ – although admittedly we are perpetuators of what became known as ‘spin’. Our craft, while not a deception, frequently deals in illusion – shining a single, brilliant beam of light that carefully leaves anything disagreeable shrouded in the fog.

Of course copywriters aren’t independent reviewers. I’d guess that the number of advertised goods most copywriters have even seen and used as part of the writing process is worryingly low. Generally, we don’t examine what we eulogise, we merely lend our finest words in exchange for reassurances that this ‘whatever’ is a particularly good one.

I suppose it isn’t a matter of lies or truth, it’s a matter of presentation and persuasion. We sell the choice of belief, sometimes with transparency sometimes with a less objective yarn. And a copywriter should always believe their readers can, and will want to, choose for themselves.

Oh, and if you’re interested, I choose the owl story. Rest in peace Schwarzenegger.

Follow Andrew on Twitter for alphabetical pimping and such like


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