Just say no to unethical marketing: disablism in health copywriting

I got an email yesterday inviting me to be an affiliate for a health product. By complete coincidence, the product promised to rid its gullible audience of a condition I actually have, so I clicked with interest.

The video sales letter, within three short minutes, was outrageously offensive. And I don’t say that lightly. A man was offered life-saving surgery that involved amputating a leg. This is a big deal for anybody, of course. I would not downplay that. But the alternative was death.

An Indigenous Two-Spirit person ties their shoelaces while sitting in a chair. They are dressed in all black and have braided hair, tattoos, and a prosthetic leg.
An Indigenous Two-Spirit person ties their shoelaces while sitting in a chair. They are dressed in all black and have braided hair, tattoos, and a prosthetic leg.

Phew, you’d think. It will be a big change to my life to lose a limb, but if it will stop me from dying then sure, let’s do it.

But no. Instead, yer man in the video described his hypothetical future as being “the poor cripple in the corner with a pathetic-looking stump”, he says he would be “half a man” and that to submit to disability would make him a “crushing failure” and mean he was “letting everybody down”.

Of course this is an effective sales tactic. He is playing directly into the fears of people who have never been disabled – the “worried well” – and exaggerating and agitating them to build up to the solution: his information product at a mere $37 (with FOUR upsells, the affiliate manager’s email tells me).

It’s basic copywriting – using the PAS method where you open with a problem (P), agitate it (A) and then present your product or service as the solution (S).

But when your lazy copywriting leads to the exacerbation of deadly stereotypes against disabled people, it becomes dangerous. It is highly unethical.

I don’t doubt the company will get conversions. But we have to question whether bagging a sale is worth dehumanising a vast proportion of the population.

(Clue: it is not.)

I sent the following email to the affiliate manager who had emailed me:

Hi [person],


Thanks for your email. As somebody with [the health condition in question], I should have absolutely been your target audience for this promotion. As it is, it is absolutely offensive to anybody who is disabled, whether with [this condition] or not. The attitudes and language expressed in the first few minutes of the video were outdated by the 1970s and should certainly have no place in the modern world.

I don’t doubt that some viewers will convert, but this is because you play on prejudiced fears that are reinforced by sales letters like this one. Those conversions come at an ethical price and that is not something I want to be part of. It is something your company should rethink if it wants to profess having any values other than fear-mongering and spreading misinformation as a way to make money.

The character in your video is offered life-saving surgery, which he somehow turns into something negative, some kind of tragedy.  A hypothetical tragedy, cured by your $37 info product. If Mark’s friends would pity him, think of him as “the poor cripple in the corner with a pathetic-looking stump” then he needs new friends. And if he thinks of himself as “half a man” as a wheelchair user, as a “crushing failure”, and that the idea that becoming disabled is the same as “letting everybody down”, then he needs to get some perspective and expose himself to the real world a bit. Actual disabled people don’t think of ourselves that way, or not for long at least. Because we have a life to get on with.

Reinforcing the message that disabled lives are not worth living is something your company should absolutely rethink.

Philippa Willitts

Time will tell whether I get a response. I do not expect them to make any changes, but I needed them to know that there are better ways of approaching sales and there are less dehumanising ways to address a disabled, or soon-to-be disabled, audience.

Just because something makes a sale does not mean we should do it. A focus on ethical approaches to copywriting and marketing has to be the way forward.

Edited to add: to my genuine surprise, I got a reply to the email above that thanked me for raising my concerns and the affiliate manager has fed back to the team with the suggestion of removing that portion of the video. They said they had not seen it that way but could now appreciate how inappropriate it was. Credit where it’s due, my feedback was listened to and hopefully the person in charge of the campaign will listen. 

Image credits: Disability:IN and Disabled And Here