3 Ways Manipulative Copy Shows Up In Your Marketing Strategy

Manipulative copywriting can show up unintentionally and unconsciously, even if we have good intentions – especially if we’ve been taught “big sales tactics”! It’s on sales pages, tucked away inside an email newsletter, hidden in the middle of 💃dancing emojis on an Instagram caption…the list goes on.

“Tell us where to look and we’ll find manipulative copy trying to convince you.” 

Why? Because bro marketing – and, let’s face it, girl boss marketing, too – has made it a thing.  The “win-all-lose-none” approach, the “do this and you’ll become a millionaire” tactic, the “I work 2 hours a day and can afford a lavish lifestyle – no questions asked” myth. 

After all, how else do you advertise a marketing technique other than with a bold claim and something polarizing?

But, and this is what the bros won’t tell you, manipulating people into buying from you might work once. Hell, it might work twice…but it won’t create a long-lasting, authentic relationship with your audience; because, sooner or later, people will realize what you’re doing and – BUCKLE UP! – they’re not going to like it. 

Looking for a way to change? Read on for 3 ways manipulative copywriting shows up in content marketing for small businesses, and for some helpful tips on how to move past these quick and cheap techniques to create something that’s meaningful and genuine.

3 ways manipulative copywriting shows up in content marketing for small businesses

The thing about manipulative marketing is that it usually primes over ethical marketing because the techniques are good for selling more and selling NOW – two things that most business owners want.

I mean, let’s be honest: we’ve done it, you’ve probably done it, you’ve purchased from someone who does it…but how exactly does it show up? Here are three of the most popular ways.

01. Passive-aggressive or “pressure purchase” CTAs

Call to action buttons (CTAs for short) are there to help encourage readers, visitors, potential customers, etc. to take action. 

It’s about getting people to do what you want them to do. Some common CTAs include:

  • Buy now!
  • Sign up for *insert service here*
  • Download the *insert product name here*
  • Book a *insert service here*
  • And so on…

However, when it comes to manipulative copywriting, your CTAs might look a little different…

  • Get clients NOW with our tried & tested *insert product here*
  • Don’t be the last to get our *insert product here*
  • Sign up for *insert service here* or continue to struggle!

READ: 6 Engaging Copywriting Tips To Boost Your Content

The last few examples feel a little icky, right? By using these “pressure purchase” CTAs, the customer feels like they no longer have any agency over themselves or their decisions.

And it doesn’t stop there.

Manipulative copywriting also shows up in opt-out CTAs. What do we mean by these? It’s the small bits of copy (microcopy) that show up when you want to unsubscribe from something, close a pop-up, etc. 

A few examples of manipulative opt-outs are:

  • For closing a pop-up that’s advertising a course: “I don’t want to learn how to become a millionaire!” 
  • When unsubscribing from a newsletter: “I no longer want to receive the best marketing tips to help me SELL MORE!”
  • For turning down a freebie download: “No, I don’t want to see better results for FREE”

Take a look at the CTAs you’ll find on the next few websites you visit and make note of who’s recurring to manipulation and who’s choosing to inspire. The difference with which one shows up more than the other miiiiight scare you.

02. Binary thinking

We like to refer to “binary thinking” as the idea some marketers try to sell their customers that there’s only “one right way” to do something. Whether that’s how to run a successful business, win over new clients, post on social media, create ads, etc., manipulative copywriting tries to encapsulate things into neat little boxes that are either “win” or “lose”.

For example:

  • “This is the ONLY course you need to…”
  • “We have designed the ONE AND ONLY tool to help you…”
  • “You NEED this *insert product here* if you ever want to succeed…”

READ: 8 Ways To Simplify Your Small Business Messaging

By threatening customers with failure, this form of manipulative copywriting persuades people into buying a product or service with the promise that it will surely catapult them to the top. However, it also misses the mark because it doesn’t take into account certain nuances, or even the fact that the “road to success” can be paved by a multitude of things coming together: mindset, skills and knowledge, customer relationships, money, etc.

Let’s not forget that each person is unique in their privileges and where systems of oppression make it more difficult. Binary thinking bypasses these nuances of privilege and oppression, relating it back to “hard work” and “the right mindset”.

By promising the sky – and not necessarily delivering – binary thinking drives customers to purchase products and services they might not even need or find useful. 

03. Fake urgency

Fake urgency is, arguably, one of the most popular forms of manipulation that marketers and advertisers employ to get people buying.

Look at most marketing courses and they’ll have a whole module dedicated to “scarcity” or “urgency” and how it kicks people’s brains into high-gear, leaving them desperate and clamoring for what you’re offering. A quick Google search will even throw up 535,000 (!!!) results on how “triggering urgency” can help you boost sales.

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Black Friday campaigns, summer sales, Cyber Monday deals…they all recur to fake urgency in order to bring in the big bucks from people who are scared that, if they don’t get it now, they’ll never be able to find it again for such a “great price”. Can you say… FOMO (fear of missing out)?

You know, it’s basically the Udemy approach (sorry, not sorry…). 

A few examples of fake urgency copy include:

  • “This is only available for the next 24 hours so get it now!”…and, 24 hours later, the offer is extended
  • “Buy this before midnight and get 70% OFF!”…and the price remains the same for👏ever
  • “There are X hours left of this sale!”…and the countdown never seems to end (looking at you, Udemy 👀)

 One of the main issues with fake urgency is that brands who recur to it often usually end up losing credibility. I mean, if they say something is on sale for 24 hours and it continues to be on sale 5 months later…they’re liars, right?

And who would want to buy from a brand that’s lying when it comes to something so basic? 

How to make your content marketing strategy for small businesses more ethical

At the end of the day, your sales copy should be about helping people by making their life easier – not about stressing them out even further in regards to what they’ll lose, how they’ll miss out, or how they’ll fail without you.

Show people why they’ll love what you have to offer – not why they desperately need what you’re selling – and you’re bound to create a much healthier and long-lasting relationship with them. 

Photo by Zackary Drucker as part of Broadly’s Gender Spectrum Collection.
Credit: The Gender Spectrum Collection.

Remember: customers aren’t there to be held hostage. They’re coming to you because they’re already unsure, and bombarding them with attacks will only make them feel more vulnerable and insecure. 

And setting the foundation for a relationship like this that’s based on insecurities, fear, and desperation gives way to a toxic relationship that will easily crumble at the first sign of trouble. 

READ: How To Use Effective Storytelling Techniques For Small Businesses

With this in mind, a great option is to highlight the benefits of what you offer instead of over-selling the product or service features themselves. For example:

  • Don’t just say: “Order now and get next-day delivery!”
  • Say: “We’re giving you next-day delivery, so you can reap the benefits sooner!”
  • Don’t just say: “Choose between morning or afternoon classes before they fill up!”
  • Say: “Flexibility matters: that’s why we offer morning or afternoon classes so our students can find one that best fits their schedule.”

By showing your customers how they’ll benefit from buying from you, and not how they’ll fail if they go somewhere else, you can rest assured they’ll be coming at you for the right reasons (growth, knowledge, encouragement) instead of fear.

TL;DR: it’s time to ditch manipulative copywriting in content marketing for small businesses 

Guilting people into buying, scaring people into downloading, and pressuring people into taking the plunge are all forms of manipulative marketing that continue to show up and harm the relationship between buyers and sellers.

Because, much like in person-person relationships, no one likes being told they’re not good enough or successful enough unless they buy/download/get/read something, right?

Manipulative copywriting shows up a lot, here are 3 clear examples:
01. Passive-aggressive or “pressure purchase” CTAs
02. Binary thinking
03. Fake urgency

Instead of recurring to scare tactics, we suggest playing into your strengths and highlighting:

  • How your product/service can help
  • The ways they can employ what they’ll learn
  • How people will feel before-during-after using your product/service

What other forms of manipulative copywriting have you encountered or employed before? Let us know in the comments and share how you stepped away from using them!


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