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Influence vs manipulation in copywriting: The art of knowing the difference

We’ve all been manipulated and influenced in our lives - especially through the work of copywriters. Don’t believe me?

When the bank posts an ad about how a credit card would give you more "financial freedom", it's manipulation.

However, when a restaurant posts an ad about no longer stocking plastic straws and motivates you to do the same, it’s influence.

What’s the difference?

In a modern world where almost anything can be copied, fabricated, and even modified to suit demand, copywriters need to be mindful of our wordsmithing - that is, if you want to be ethical, but that’s a conversation for another time.

Let me explain…

In the copywriting, advertising, and marketing business, we’re constantly either influencing or manipulating through storytelling.

Although the line is fine, you’ll more likely know you’re doing the latter or the former once you know the difference between the two.

So, what’s the difference?

Influence is the act of “emanating” an idea to inspire others.

Manipulation is the act of playing on someone’s emotions and actions to sway them into an often-self-centred direction.

If it sounds like I’d just explained one definition in two ways, let me make it simpler:

Influence - persuading someone to do something for their own good

Manipulation - persuading someone to do something for your own good

Get it? Right, let’s move on.

You’re shopping for a second-hand car…

The salesmen are tripping over each other to be the first to say, “Good morning, how can I help you today?”. You have an idea of what you need and want, but the truth is, the salesman already has an action plan to sell the car he wants to get off the floor.

From his perspective, the black sheep Jeep has been standing there for months now. He needs to sell this car, and quick.

From your perspective, this guy is genuinely interested in the what’s, why’s, and how’s of your story.

He tells you all about the Jeep, how many owners it’s had, its mileage, history, and a story about his friend’s friend who had the same one and loved it.

After you ask about a respray on the front bumper, he admits the Jeep has been in a “little fender bender”. But before you can say anything else, he tells you that if you buy the car today, he may be able to take a few thousand off the price.

You drive off with your new Jeep.

It overheats a month later because the “little fender bender” was actually a head-on, radiator destroying accident that was backyard MacGyvered to last a while longer.

What’s my point?

Don’t get me wrong; I’m not saying that all second-hand car salesmen are con artists, but people tend to manipulate others into buying something for the good of themselves and not others.

What the car salesman did was manipulate you into thinking the “little fender bender” was nothing to worry about, even if it meant you’d be stuck with a broken radiator. He also played the urgency card, taking a few thousand off the price of a car that was overpriced to begin with.

Whether on purpose or not, it’s easier to guilt someone into doing or buying something you need to sell than building trust and selling an idea or product you truly believe in.

It’s all around us

For centuries, politicians, lawyers, the fashion industry, cartoon characters, and the like have gained from the act of manipulation.

Yes, manipulation can be easy, practicable, and mastered.

But influence through inspiration? That’s an art.

Manipulator or influencer? Manipulated or influenced?

Look, we’re all human, and we don’t always know when we’re the manipulator or the victim. What you can do, is recognise the difference:

  • The intent: Are you saying something for the good of yourself (manipulation)? Or for the good of the receiver (influence)?

  • Facts shared: Are you avoiding information that might negatively affect the outcome (manipulation)? Or are you sharing all the information to gain the receiver’s trust (influence)?

  • The potential short- and long-term impact: If the receiver follows your recommendation, is there potential for negative consequences (manipulation)? Or are you sure the outcome will benefit the receiver (influence)?

If you’re a copywriter, you either know the difference and choose to do the right thing, know the difference and don’t care, or you didn’t know the difference, and now you know.

Need examples?


“After my best friend lost 15kgs, I had to try this magical, natural weight-loss remedy for myself – and it worked! Order right now and feel confident again.”

Sorry, but there’s no magical weight-loss pill. The person writing this “testimonial” is a storyteller who’s never even seen this product, never mind endorsing it. Follow a healthy diet, hydrate, and exercise – that works.


“There’s nothing worse than feeling uncomfortable in your own body. Yes, weight loss involves blood, sweat, tears, and eating less pasta, but when you look in the mirror and realise you have the power to change your life, it’s all so worth it. My proven wellness programme will put you through all the hardships, but it’ll also put you back in control of your own body.”

This message is sincere and inspiring. It contains emotion, relatability, and the whole truth, but it also makes you feel that you have the power to control your weight.

See what I mean?

So, wherever you are, whatever you’re doing, the next time you offer advice or recommendations, ask yourself, “Is my message intent on benefitting others or is it for my own personal gain?”


Have a question or argument? Feed my curiosity and share your opinion!

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1 Comment

Loved it! The fact that you can shape someone's perspective with a few choice words? Terrifying. I always use the example of "one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter". The one phrase inspires loyalty and pride, the other fear and anger. However, both people are essentially going through dangerous lengths to achieve a political goal. Same same but super different! The power of language, man. Looking forward to the next piece of your mind.

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