Recently I stumbled across an ad seeking writers for a project that send shudders through my writerly bones. Here’s the gist of the ad, as paraphrased by me:
We’re seeking a handful of talented writers to create five-star reviews of our fabulous products. You won’t need to buy or even use our products. Simply tell the world how great they are! Compensation: $10 per review.
Kind of sleazy, don’t you think?
The playwright Lillian Hellman once said, “I cannot and will not cut my conscience to fit this year’s fashions.”
On behalf of professional writers everywhere, let me jump onto my desk and hereby proclaim that I cannot and will not cut my conscience for 10 smackeroos.
Coming from a copywriter with 25 years of freelancing under his belt, this proclamation might seem a bit hypocritical (not to mention hubristic in comparing myself to the magnificent Ms. H.).
If the compensation were better—more in the area of $200 or $300, say—would this assignment be more palatable? And when you get right down to it, don’t I and the thousands of professional copywriters populating the cubicles, home offices and coffee shops of North America do much the same selling-your-soul kind of thing? Don’t we shill our talents for services and talents that we may or may not believe in?
I’m so glad you asked those questions.
Let me preface my response by noting that most copywriters worth their salt will not tackle a project that runs counter to their deeply held beliefs. Would I agree to write collateral materials promoting a political candidate that I do not believe in? Or a TV spot for a company that discriminates against minorities or that denigrates women?
Nope and nope.
But there’s a crucial distinction between tackling a typical copywriting project (if there is such a thing as a typical copywriting assignment) and writing paid positive “reviews.”
In the first case, you’re giving voice to your client. It’s not being represented as anything but a message from The Big Tech Company, The Family Dealership Out on Highway 101, or The Heartwarming Non-Profit That Does Good Things for Little Kids.
In the second example, you are you. Getting paid for an honest review for a product you’ve road tested is one thing. But in this case, you’re lying. And the client is dishonestly hiding behind your voice. Whether he’s paying $10 or $200, the client is a weasel and an insecure weasel at that.
One of the perks of hanging out your shingle as a freelancer is choosing with whom you work. So much of contemporary life—journalism, politics, social media—is characterized by a race to the bottom. Standards are being lowered every day, thanks in large measure to the weasels.
It’s our job as citizens and professional writers to rise above this squalor and keep an eye peeled for the Slippery North American Weasel.
A bit of advice: wield a mallet, fellow writers. A hard-bound copy of an unabridged Webster’s works, too. And remember that every time you whack one of those little suckers, somewhere an angel gets his wings.
P.S. This is just my point of view, me on a high horse. Fellow writers (clients, too): What do you think?