If you are a US-based writer providing copywriting services, you probably aren’t spending a lot of time thinking about how Freedom of Speech applies to what you write.
In most contexts, we enjoy the Constitutionally-guaranteed right to say whatever we feel is necessary to express ourselves. But there are limits. Everyone knows that shouting “fire” in a crowded theater is not a good idea for anyone who lacks the desire to become intimately familiar with the local county jail. Similarly, unless copywriters and advertisers want to experience a deep, meaningful conversation with agents from the Federal Trade Commission or the Food and Drug Administration, they should be aware that in advertising copy, there are some things you just can’t mention.
So, are you interested in a few surprising examples? Here are four important things to steer clear of in your copywriting:
Quick, take a look at your business card. Does it include the words “physician,” “lawyer” or “certified financial planner?” If not, you have no business writing anything that could be construed as legal, medical, or financial advice. You can, however, provide readers with information, and you are free to suggest consumers consult a professional such as your client.
Tread carefully here as these are some of the most heavily regulated portions of the entire advertising market. If you write extensively in these areas, its best to run your advertising copy by counsel before releasing it into the wild.
The Names of Diseases
Like most complicated legislation, the Dietary Supplement and Health Education Act of 1994 solved some problems and created others. For businesses marketing natural health products such as supplements, the act provided some regulatory relief by clearly delineating which products needed to go through the FDA’s approval process. For copywriters, however, it created a headache.
The law declared that only FDA-approved drugs could prevent or cure a disease—or even ease its symptoms. Generally, this means that anything copy you write about natural health supplements cannot include the names of specific diseases. Instead, focus on the overall benefits of your product. You cannot say, for example, that a supplement soothes the pain of Crohn’s Disease, but you can say that it promotes natural digestive health.
Do three out of four dentists surveyed really recommend a specific brand of chewing gum? Most likely. The Federal Trade Commission requires companies to document the truthfulness of claims they make in their advertisements. If you say you’ve polled dentists about your product, then you better be able to pull out a copy of a methodologically sound survey if the FTC knocks at your door.
The Names of Specific Housing Market Segments
In the realm of real estate advertising, copywriters can easily get into trouble by targeting specific locations to specific people.
It doesn’t matter if an apartment is the “perfect bachelor pad” or a gated community has all the amenities to make it a “business woman’s paradise.” You simply cannot include this kind of language in your real estate ads. Those phrases could easily violate the Fair Housing Act by implying that the properties are only available to one gender. Instead, concentrate on things that are universally appealing to anyone seeking a new home.
Of course, none of these regulations would exist if everyone simply wrote honest, fair, and beneficial advertising copy in all cases. As a copywriter, always strive for those standards. They will keep you and your clients out of trouble, and they will keep your target market happy.
Matthew R is a freelance writer available on WriterAccess, a marketplace where clients and expert writers connect for assignments.