The Best and Worst Catalog Copy of 2014

The Worst Catalog Copy of 2014

Herschell Gordon Lewis
Herschell Gordon Lewis

Enough happy talk. It’s time for annual morphing from Dr. Jekyll into Mr. Hyde and looking at some catalogs that might (opinion) have had more octane in their copy.

I’ll repeat three times, so we’re clear on the difference between the top five and the bottom five: 1) None of these catalogs is unprofessional or undeserving of circulation. 2) None of these catalogs is unprofessional or undeserving of circulation. 3) None of these catalogs is unprofessional or undeserving of circulation.

So why even have a “Worst” category? Two reasons: First, because we grade on the “curve,” and based solely on copy, descriptions in some catalogs are more convincing than descriptions in others. Second, a catalog’s copy should match its targets. I’d tear apart the copy in “Beforever” … except that this catalog is aimed at pre-teen girls, which I ain’t.

So, acknowledging that much criticism is born of prejudices, here’s the bottom list.

Worst, no. 1: Alternative Health Care

Here’s a catalog that’s a contemporary classic of what used to be totally acceptable. We can understand the wording. So why is it in this lower group?

From a copy standpoint, the deficiency becomes apparent as the reader says, “Uh-huh” and moves on, recognizing but unmotivated.

The cover copy is a cliche:

Healthy Looks Good On You!

True beauty comes from within….

HCBL’s vitamins, supplements, herbs and minerals can help support your body naturally.

Huh? What’s with the “can help”? Does that mean these items have the option of helping or not helping, depending on their mood of the moment?

That’s no big deal. But what is a big deal is descriptive cliché after descriptive cliché, instead of aggressive apparent proof of benefit. Example: Following a heading, “Thicker Hair in Just Days” is flat nonspecific copy that trudges out in low gear, beginning: “This combination is an excellent source of vitally important nutrients needed for the healthy, shiny, vibrant hair as nature intended….” It’s a slow-moving “So-what” approach, and if this catalog reaches out to finger prospects beyond hard-core multibuyers it’s less than competitive in the 2015 marketplace.

Worst, no. 2: Sahalie

Ever get the feeling you’re reading somebody else’s catalog? That’s altogether too common, because what too many copywriters forget is that recipients of the catalog, or stopper-in at a website, aren’t sitting in their same office, as familiar with in-terminology as the creative staff may be.

A heading in this catalog: Teva® De La Vina Boots – with a pop of canvas color. Oh? Here are the boots, listed in black and brown. The boots are “Leather/canvas,” and certainly the copywriter (and creative director) could have avoided misdirection.

And here we go again, with “Enzyme-washed knits.” OK, explain enzyme-washed. And while you’re studying this description, explain the heading: “The Belgian waffle of Waffle Henleys.” Clever, huh? Sorry, no … or not sorry, no.

One more, just to complete the trifecta: “ButterFleece™ Zip-T: Soft like butter, wears like iron!”

A wry thought: Who wants to touch a fabric that’s soft like butter?

One point massively in this catalog’s favor: Headings avoid the 20th century technique of using initial caps. Good for you, guys.

Worst, no. 3: Donna Salyers’ Fabulous Furs

I’m graciously accepting my co-executive’s big note attached to the cover of this printed catalog. She wrote, in Sharpie-sharpness: “No real clue about real or faux.”

I’m always looking for a reason to discredit her conclusions, and as usual I wasn’t able to do it. Here’s a Couture 48″ Coat. (On the same page – Couture 26″ Hooded Jacket, and Couture Hook Vest.)

Another grouping, elsewhere. identifies its items as faux. This one doesn’t, and catalog reading-patterns aren’t always in any sequence. Here’s the complete description of the Couture 48″ Coat:

Sinfully soft, our hooded 48″ full-length coat is a striking balance of muted tones and tactile texture. A standout in our Couture Collection, it has European fur hook closures, velvet pockets and a generous fur-lined hood. Available in Blonde Mink and Puma. Made in USA & imported. XS-3X. $699.

Hmm. A generous fur-lined hood? Does that mean genuine fur? Blonde Mink and Puma have to be styles, not the real animals, don’t they? Any vendor selling a genuine fur coat for $699 would have a mob outside the door before the store opens.

I differ from my partner on one major defection here: Would any salesperson, even half-trained, say of a fur coat, “Made in the USA & imported” as though this is a used car? “Made”? Ugh.

Worst, no. 4: Oriental Trading

I’m mildly embarrassed to attack the copy in this venerable catalog. (The subhead on the home page emphasizes history – “Celebrating over 80 years of fun.”)

Maybe “attack” is too strong a verb. Here’s the keyline on the home page:

Express your creativity with party themes and events for every season! Find everything you need right here!

A better way for justifying a negative reaction to this, which typifies copy in this catalog, is to pretend to be a copywriter looking for a job. You wouldn’t show samples as blandly worded as that, would you?

On it goes. For “Solid Color Party Supplies”: Find coordinating color party supplies and decorations for every event. For “Stationery“: Shop for fun notepads, pencils and activity books for kids! Teachers and parents will find our calendars and stationery assortments useful for the classroom or at home.

Understatement isn’t competitive in a competitive marketplace.

Worst, no. 5:  Collette

Someone who has been locked inside for a lifetime, enjoying only TV movies produced at least 35 years ago, would see no problem here. Are these people the targets? If so, no problem. But if we’re after people who can and do travel, much of the content is a batch of clichés.

The cover gives away the ploy: “live the traveler’s life … at last, an easy, affordable and inspiring way to see the world.” Inside cover: “experience the benefits of guided travel.”(Why a lower case first word? Maybe it’s to make up for all those initial caps in other catalogs.) The technique continues throughout: “travel to connect with people and p[laces around the world.” Yawn.

Just in case you aren’t getting the idea, try stifling your yawn as you read this heading: Two things make for an amazing journey: the people you meet and the places you go. Collette brings these two elements together on trips that are often emotional, sometimes life-changing and always a lot of fun.

That last bit bites itself a little, doesn’t it?

And that’s it for this season.

Whew! I’ve never worked so hard to find copy to criticize. Come on, you cataloguers, make life a little easier, won’t you, by regressing to the type of nonmotivating, dry descriptions we used to see.

Oh, well. Maybe next year will be easier.

PREVIOUS: The Best of 2014

Herschell Gordon Lewis is the principal of Lewis Enterprises, Pompano Beach, Florida. Author of 32 books, including the recently-published Internet Marketing Tips, Tricks, and Tactics; Catalog Copy That Sizzles; On the Art of Writing Copy (fourth edition just published); Asinine Advertising; and Creative Rules for the 21st Century, he writes copy for and consults with clients worldwide. Web address is herschellgordonlewis.com

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