5 Dirty Copywriting Tricks for Seedy Marketers

What’s the one thing shady salespeople and their hapless victims have in common?

The stink of desperation.

There are loads of honest marketers out there, carefully presenting products in the best light to attract attention, develop interest and make a sale to the right people at the right price.

There are also a few nasty eggs, promising the sky while they sell you blue paint.

And somewhere in the vast space between, there are otherwise decent copywriters who sometimes drop in a dirty trick or two.

If you spot one or two of these red flags in a sales letter, email or landing page, be cautious.

If you see all of them in one place, run. Or stick around to grab a few cheap laughs.

1. “Make up to £100 an hour or more!”

Not to be confused with the stay-at-home mum who makes “up to £100 an hour from home”, this all-encompassing claim promises everything and nothing at the same time.

Let’s break it down.

You could make less than £100 an hour. You could make £100 an hour. Or you could make more than £100 an hour.

In effect, you could make any amount of money, from nothing to infinity. But doesn’t £100 an hour sound like a nice wage?

The reader’s eye rolls over these two innocuous modifiers (“up to” and “or more”) and sticks to the tantalising prospect of a £100 an hour reward. The copywriter has made no concrete promise, but they’ve still managed to cement the idea that you’ll be earning a hefty salary.

If you see this kind of weaselly wording on a sales page, take it at its literal meaning:

You might earn something. Maybe.

2. “Only £29! (Actual value £299)”

If you’re running a genuine, verifiable discount, then I apologise. This isn’t about you.

But if you’re attaching arbitrary price tags to your products or services to artificially inflate their perceived value — stop it.

Your 16-page e-book is not worth £299. It never was, and crossing out the price tag with a strikethrough font won’t erase your transparent deception, nor the thick guilt that keeps you awake at night.

In some cases, you might see a respectable marketer compare their £29 e-book to a £299 seat in their workshop.

Don’t be fooled. If their e-book were as valuable as a place at their seminar, they’d be selling their digital download at a price close to its value, raking in the same cash without having to leave their house.

3. “For a limited time only!”

Scarcity is a useful situation to convey in marketing.

Why else would festival organisers waste advertising space on posters that have “sold out” stamps printed across their Friday line-ups?

Because it creates a sense of urgency and a fear of missing out that sells more tickets for the Saturday show.

Similarly, DFS loves to tell you that their January sales “must end Friday”. If you want a chaise longue at 50% off, you’ll need to act quickly — and this urgency pulls in more punters than a leisurely sale that drags on for months.

But if you’re going to present a limited offer, at least make it a little bit credible.

I’ve seen countdown timers that reset after hitting zero, seminars that always have exactly ten spots left, and time-limited offers that don’t even bother to specify what the limit is or why it’s there.

Don’t just throw in a line about scarcity to shake things up: respect your audience enough to make your claims worthy of their trust.

Because if we want to get pedantic, every offer ever made is limited.

Order now before the sun consumes us all.

4. “Our money-making system”

Any decent copywriter will tell you that concrete specifics work better than vague ambiguities.

So when you come across a sales pitch that doesn’t dare go any deeper than loose references to their products, systems and processes, beware.

It’s a bit like those websites that can’t get past their dedication to the painfully obscure “solution”. Except instead of just being lazy and pompous, a sales pitch talking about “systems” is usually a lot more concerning.

If the marketer won’t tell you what sort of system they’re selling, then they probably have:

  • nothing worth calling a system
  • a system that won’t bear scrutiny
  • a system that’s already obvious to the average person
  • or a system that’s going to get you in trouble.

On the rare occasions that these benevolent millionaires deign to shine a light on one of their top-secret methods, we usually end up wishing we had been left in the dark.

One money-making system suggested that you go out and wash 11 cars a day for £10 a pop. Another recommended that you keep doubling your money on either red or black until you win at higher stakes to recoup your earlier losses.

If you want to be vague in order to build suspense and keep people reading, that’s fine. But there needs to be a payoff where you let a few solid details out of the bag.

Don’t make me read through 3,000 words of copy just to tell me to win at gambling.

5. “Our risk-free, 30-day money-back guarantee!”

If you’re a known marketer with an accepted track record who’s almost certainly sitting on buckets of cash, your money-back guarantee might carry some weight with your cautious readers.

But if you’re promising a risk-free transaction from behind a slapdash home page littered with yellow-highlighted text and flashing arrows, we can’t be blamed for being a little wary.

Some of the worst offenders will have a disclaimer in the small print. You’ll get your money back, after they’ve subtracted a “modest” administration fee of £50.

That’s not risk-free. That’s you risking £50.

In an ingenious twist, these marketers have turned their promise of a risk-free purchase for you into a risk-free sale for them. If you’re satisfied, they win. If you’re not satisfied, they still win.

But don’t worry. You’re also protected by a low-resolution seal of quality, coloured in gold and lifted straight from Clip Art.

Please. Even the promise on a £20 note isn’t guaranteed.