Is What We Do Manipulation?

When we discuss our work with business owners who are new to direct response marketing – and we talk about the way we use email copy to inspire certain emotions that make customers and prospects more likely to buy – some of them ask us:

“Aren’t you just manipulating people into buying from your clients?”

This is a common objection.

Especially with second- or third-generation managers who, perhaps, inherited a brand that took one or more lifetimes to build, and so naturally lean towards conservatism.

It’s also a legitimate objection – and one that, I believe, is worthy of board-level deliberation. So, for this blog post, I’m going to share our position on this matter.

We’ve given this question a lot of thought.

In our view, there is indeed a line to be drawn between emotionally-compelling marketing that is ethical, and emotionally-compelling marketing that is unethical.

This line underpins the ethos of everything we do here at Cashstream.

When I first learned how to write copy from some of the “old school” direct-response copywriters (whose names I won’t mention), the question of ethics and manipulation came up quite often, particularly from newbies. The answer was always the same:

“Does your product help people? If so, you have a RESPONSIBILTY to get it into as many hands as possible, otherwise you’re doing the world a disservice.”

Now, this is clearly just a crude form of backwards rationalisation.

Five years ago, I was at a gathering of copywriters in Florida, where several of the participants were extolling the virtue of this position – while claiming that, since my client’s refund rate wasn’t in the double digits, our copy wasn’t aggressive enough.

(About six months later, these same people were complaining because their banks had terminated their merchant accounts without warning.)

Another answer to this ethical question you might sometimes hear:

“What matters is your INTENTION. If your overall goal is good, then it’s your responsibility to persuade and inspire people to take action.”

Although this is better, it’s still not satisfying.

After all, as the old saying goes, the road to hell is paved with good intentions – and many of the worst atrocities humanity has ever witnessed were instigated by leaders who believed their intentions were for the “greater good”.

Who are we to decide what counts as good or evil?

This answer is just a slightly more sophisticated form of backwards rationalisation. It might make some marketers feel better, but it isn’t helpful in guiding our ethics.

How can we draw a line between emotionally-compelling copy that is ethical and emotionally-compelling copy that is unethical?

We need to take a leaf out of Kant’s book.

It goes back to our intention, but it’s not about “good” or “evil”.

It’s about whether we treat our customers, prospects, and suspects as means to an end (our end, i.e. generating cash flow) or as an end in themselves.

Here’s what I mean by that:

Let’s say we’re writing an email for a client of ours who sells an interview training course to job seekers who have recently been laid off.

We could take the same view that many other direct response marketers take, and see our client’s list as a “herd” that’s waiting to be milked.

There are some classic tricks we could use to exploit their sense of failure, and it would no doubt bring in more sales.

But that would violate our ethics.

(It would also be a fantastic way to trash our client’s brand and foster resentment.)

We should instead see our client’s “list” for what it is: tens of thousands of individuals who subscribed because they want and need help landing their next job.

And what’s the best way we can help them?

Giving them confidence.

Confidence is an emotion, and the only way we can inspire that feeling is to write emotionally-compelling, some might even say manipulative, copy.

And, yes, we’re also going to invite subscribers to act on that feeling of confidence by purchasing my client’s product, so they can get proper training on how to ace their next job interview. However, that is not the primary aim of the email. The primary aim of our email is to inspire and educate. Sales are a predictable consequence of that.

Do you know what happens when you send lots of emails like that?

You do indeed make a lot of sales. But you also receive regular unsolicited replies from subscribers, thanking you for sending them emails. They’ll tell you how they were close to giving up, but your daily emails gave them the confidence to keep going.

This is why we’re able to help our clients turn their customer, prospect, and suspect relationships into dependable cash flow – as opposed to just a short-term cash boost that hurts their brand over the long run and gets their merchant account shut down.


Never treat your customers, prospects, and suspects as a means to an end. Always treat them as an end in themselves. Easy to say; more difficult to do in practice.

Leave A Comment