Best and worst in catalog copy

Feb 01, 2009 10:30 PM  By

ANNUAL CHOICES: THE BEST AND WORST CATALOG COPY

To adapt a cliché…

When times get tough, catalogs become more similar to other catalogs.

That’s because survival has to trump cleverness, and tough times mean the environment itself is competitive. Staying in business becomes the major aggressive factor.

Undoubtedly, sigh, between the time I write this and the time you read it, more of our catalog confrères will have flown quietly to that Great Package Delivery in the Sky.

So survival is a factor this year. The catalogs I chose as best and worst — based on copy, not glitz — may have greater significance than choices of past years, because salesmanship is a more significant indicator of survival than is artistry.

So if these choices seem odd, ascribe the oddity to an economy in which beauty may be in the eye of the beholder — but if we blink, the eye suddenly is looking at what used to be.

BEST, NO. 1: Improvements

I admire the ability to generate a buying impulse for a product or service for which I had no prior consideration. This catalog is loaded with stuff I would never consider had the descriptions not been so salesworthy. That includes prosaic items such as dog beds (I no longer have a dog) and steamers (we have maid service). Here’s an eye-catching heading: Door stays open when you want it open. Text begins:

Powerful magnetic catch makes sure a wind gust won’t slam the door in your face when you’re bringing in groceries! Mount the magnetic steel post on the floor or wall, and the smaller, spring-loaded magnetic steel catch near the door bottom. Also protects wall from door knob….

Here’s a “Turtle Stool” that folds to two inches. Here are rechargeable, battery-operated tea candles. Yeah, I want some of these and some of those.

BEST, NO. 2: Savannah’s Candy Kitchen (Christmas 2008 edition)

Maybe it’s my Alzheimer’s lapsing out of remission, but I admire bright enthusiasm — and that’s the core of Savannah’s copy. Here’s “Cherry Divinity,” whose subhead is Heaven with a cherry on top. The text begins:

One explanation for the juicy Maraschino cherry is that it provides just enough weight to keep this beautiful treat from floating up to you-know-where. We just like the extra kick it adds to the flavor of this perfect addition to your holiday buffet….

Or, for Pecan Coffee Cake, the subhead, All that’s missing is the gossip! followed by these first words of text:

Wouldn’t you just love to invite a few of your best confidantes over for coffee and cake this season? We thought so, which is why we’re offering this melt-in-your-mouth Pecan Coffee Cake. Perfect for brunch. Or lunch. Or any old time you want to munch….”

Oh, some of the copy is prosaic. In the middle of a description of Praline Cake is this loser: …handmade from scratch using the finest and freshest ingredients. And sometimes copy tries too hard, such as, for “Best Sellers Trio,” the opening line, Who wouldn’t ‘go-pher’ this divinely original combo?

But what the heck, Shakespeare wrote Titus Andronicus and his reputation has stayed intact.

BEST, NO. 3: Brookstone

Clarity shouldn’t be a rare factor in catalog copy. But copy such as each super-clear description in the Brookstone catalog points up the rarity of total clarity. Here’s an overline, above a tabletop garden: Grow a garden year round — no green thumb needed!

The heading for the copy block: “Enjoy fresh flowers all year ’round and grow your own herbs and vegetables — without dirt, weeds or mess.” Just the first few sentences of body copy:

“The best AeroGarden®yet! New Advanced Growing System continuously monitors plant growth and adjusts nutrients, light and water. More room for plant growth, more oxygen to the roots and better lighting ensure large, beautiful blooms and lush, full growth. Harvest your first lettuce or herbs in 4-6 weeks and cherry tomatoes in 14 weeks….”

(Compare that with a competing catalog, whose heading is “Soil-Free ‘Miracle’ Garden” and whose text begins, Engineered with the latest in hydroponic and aeroponic technology, this indoor garden system allows you to grow fresh vegetables and herbs all year long.)

BEST, NO. 4: Artful Home

How glad I am that I can make happy comments about a catalog whose literacy and civilized products don’t suffer from haughtiness. Sliding into abstruse “art authority” pedagogy might have been a temptation, but this catalog’s creative team resisted that artfully.

The nature of their product-mix might scare off some proletarians, but the demographic match is a matter of list selection, not Roget’s. Yes, some individual words may be beyond the vocabularian capability of some of us: For the Spiral Cocktail Table, The graceful fanning of bubinga-veneered ply effortlessly uplifts substantial 0.5“ glass top with polished edges — sent me careening into Google, which verified that bubinga is a lumber often chosen for veneers.

What’s extraordinarily appealing is the apparent assumption that the reader shares a love of sophisticated art. For a colored glass sculpture titled “Gondola: Burning Embers, Deep Purple,” copy begins: An arced horizon of fiery reds and purples sweeps across this blown-glass vessel….

BEST, NO. 5 (tie): Magellan’s and The Territory Ahead

Is it the product mix or the benefit-laden copy that causes the recipient of this catalog to start jotting down items we never thought about until the Magellan’s catalog came along?

What makes this so 21st century is grabber-headings such as this — Portable Nano-UV Disinfection Light kills bacteria and viruses in 10 seconds — followed by convincing backup text:

“It uses ultraviolet light to kill 99.9% of germs on any surface, which makes it ideal for sanitizing airplane tray tables, lavatory surfaces, hotel bedding, telephones, remote controls and much more. Fits conveniently in your purse or pocket for easy access anywhere, and has a 10-second safety timer. Bulb lasts up to 5,000 hours. Includes two AAA batteries.”

And except for price, that’s the entire description. Proof of professionalism is that the description is complete.

Magellan’s has mastered the art of brief, salesworthy headings. Just two examples: “Arrive refreshed with your own air supply.” “Beat the heat. Keep your feet dry and odor-free.”

The Territory Ahead opens its oh-so-literate descriptions with a reason to own a specific garment. For a cap they call “Himalayan Headwarmer,” a smile and a buying impulse arrive simultaneously: In the Himalayas, where on any given day it’s possible to deep-freeze your medulla, a chill-thwarting cap is a must…. For a “Too Cool for School Pullover,” text begins, “De rigueur for playing hooky or poker or better, both, with enough well-behaved appointments to fool the eye of your truant officer or ace the king to your right….

Okay, let’s wander down into the catacombs and risk getting a rock thrown through the window. “Worst” doesn’t mean “terrible.” It just means these don’t reach the plateau I cheerfully admit is an arbitrary level of professional salesmanship.

WORST, NO. 1: Wolfermans.com

I’m basing this negative head-shake on the home page, which at the holiday season was totally blah. Example — the entire description for a $39.95 assortment: Snow Friends Tower — filled with sweet sentiments. Four boxes to open — eight treats to enjoy. A fantastic variety of breakfast favorites to give and to get!

A click (not indicated) brings up a fuller description, but even that exposition seems tired.

WORST, NO. 2: Neiman Marcus NM Manual

About half my wardrobe originated at Neiman Marcus, so don’t accuse me of berating elitism. What’s wrong with this catalog of menswear is an arrogance that damages the impression of genuine superiority. (Some of the models and poses are, to be charitable, bizarre.)

WORST, NO. 3: Horchow and Horchow.com

One has the uncomfortable feeling that the copywriters are bored. This is the entire description of an item banally titled “Bread Box”: An appealing bread box made of ceramic with cast aluminum accents. 14″L × 9″W × 13″T. Glass and ceramic pieces are dishwater safe. That’s it, for an item priced at $225.

The “Jonathan Adler Glass Table Lamp is mentioned but not shown. Copy says, Large white shade on a glass base available in three colors. Specify blue (featured), Orange, or Gray (view all at Horchow.com). Okay, off to the Web. Where is it? Rotsa ruck.

WORST, NO. 4: The Popcorn Factory

This is painful. Aside from being a popcorn nut, I’ve admired this catalog. Somehow, hard times seem to have hit the creative end. Even a year ago, would this first sentence of “Big Snow Celebration Baskets” escaped the blue pencil? Your gift recipients will be ready to celebrate once they have this thoughtful gift in hand.

Or the multiplicity of boiler-plate openings? Plump premium nuts never had it so good;” “If you haven’t tasted a Pixie®, you don’t know what you’re missing!” “In a word … wow! Come on, guys, for 2009 bring back the catalog we admire.

WORST, NO. 5: Honeybakedham.com

Chalk this one down to a personal prejudice. The product is superior. The prices aren’t outrageous. The photographs are appetizing.

So what’s wrong? The slow-moving Web presentation. Open the company’s print catalog and wham! There’s ham! Click onto its home page and you don’t even get any eye-candy. The home page is an encomium to HoneyBaked’s founder.

Well, then, let’s click on a link, “Browse our Products.” Huh? Nothing. That jump-page shows a ham being sliced — not much artistry in the photo — with a headline, What makes HoneyBaked so special? and a single line of text: Each HoneyBaked Ham is hand-selected for leanness, smoked up to 24 hours, then spiral-sliced to the bone so each tender, juicy slice is easy to serve.

Yeah, but how about a specific? How about a price? And you’re on the Web, buddy, so how about a deal?

And that’s it for this season. Two standard disclaimers are in order: First, I can evaluate only those catalogs I see. So you may have escaped unnoticed, or your brilliance may have been unrecognized.

Second, these are opinions, and in some cases unless you’re listed in the top five I’m absolutely confident they differ from opinions within your own office. Please, please, keep those disclaimers in mind. They may prevent an act of violence.

You may not agree with my conclusions. You may have other candidates, good and bad. Or you may resent outside criticism. That’s okay. As a tireless Chicago Cubs fan, I’ll sigh once again: There’s always next year.

Herschell Gordon Lewis is the principal of Lewis Enterprises (herschellgordonlewis.com) and author of 31 books.