Catalog Copy: Is Friendly Rhetoric the Right Move?

Repeating a mantra every one of us should be reciting like an “Ommmm” every day: We’re deep in the Internet Era, and whether we have become slaves, admirers, or even opponents of this new Goliath, we’d better realize that the people on the other end of our catalogs probably are affected by it, at least as profoundly as we are. That means friendly rhetoric may be “in.” And not only is friendly wording not out of key with whatever your existing descriptions are, it isn’t tough to do.

Notice, please: I said “tough to do,” not “difficult to execute.” That, really, is all there is to applying it.

Words are words whether spoken or written. An exercise that easily proves how easy it is to inject a convivial note into a catalog description is to “talk it” to an associate or a family member. Much of the artificiality our fingertips lacquer onto a chunk of copy gives way to more-casual, more-direct verbiage when our tongues grab and shake the words. Sentences become shorter, a helper now that attention spans are themselves shorter.

Try that exercise once or twice, and the flow will come naturally. But hold it, you may be thinking, Does that imply sacrificing dignity?

Not at all. In fact, dignity is a principal ingredient of image, and image is a mighty competitive weapon. Combine it with the magical (but elusive) word rapport and you have copy that appeals on a level beyond traditional description.

A quick example, from a carefully “convivialized” catalog, Lobster Gram, the first two sentences of text for a product called Maine Shore Clambake Deluxe: Beach party in your backyard! We’ll bring the picnic; you wear your surfware and bring a huge appetite.

I suspect the writer meant “surfwear,” not the metallic-seeming “surfware,” but what we notice are, first, that the first sentence isn’t a complete sentence but the parallel of a spoken thought. “We’ll bring” is conversational. The tone is arm-around-the-shoulder, 2007-vintage copywriting.

On adjacent pages of a respected catalog of items for the home are two descriptions exemplifying how within a catalog we can have traditional, dispassionate product descriptions and conversational product descriptions. The first sentence of one:

These stand-alone high-capacity, Whole-House Humidifiers use a patented recirculating evaporative system with a special filter that removes water contaminants, and provides cool, clean, invisible moisture, without white dust or over-humidification.

The first sentence of the other: Enjoy immediate warmth without having to fire up the expensive furnace.

Doesn’t that first one tax your patience? The 30-word sentence demands rather than supplies constancy.

Two consumer electronics catalogs describe a gadget that connects two computers. One headline exclaims: “Transfer Files & Share Resources PC-to-PC with this Tiny USB Adapter!” The first line of text: “There’s no easier way to connect two PCs!

The product heading on the other catalog: “USB 2.0 Connectivity.” The first line of text: “Trouble-free transmittal.”

Assuming you have the two catalogs side by side, the description most likely to have you reading on depends on your demographic match with the catalog. The nontechie feels comfortable with the first description, which emphasizes what it does. The technically oriented reader senses a match with the second one.

The point? A catalog has to be increasingly aware of who its recipients are. Yes, that’s easier on the Web, through an e-mail winnowing process. In print, misguessing who gets your catalog can be an expensive way of minimizing response.

Conviviality isn’t synonymous with so much self-backslapping that the catalog recipient is left out of the mix. Along with friendliness, a principle of the Internet era is awareness of — and catering to — the immediate desire potential of the reader, not the cataloger.

An upscale catalog of leather goods has a single copy block for six items pictured together. The first sentence: Our exclusive new line of leather goods reflects our belief in the fundamentals: quality craftsmanship, leather that lasts, and designs that are truly useful.

Snorrrrre. The second sentence begins to transmit information: Drum-dyed full grain Italian cowhide has a tumbled soft hand, for leather you can live with and enjoy every day.

Suppose you’re in a store. The clerk, after accosting you at a display and saying, “Our exclusive new line of leather goods reflects our belief in the fundamentals: quality craftsmanship, leather that lasts, and designs that are truly useful,” adds, “This is leather you can live with and enjoy every day. Hey, where are you going?”

Think like a customer. Probably between now and the end of time, some catalogs will continue in the venerable tradition of unvarnished descriptions. Some will use self-congratulations as a principal selling tool.

Others will be alerted to the shifting winds of contemporaneous communication and will mirror as best they can what they may regard as evolutionary and others regard as passing trends.

Which will bring the most response? As communication itself becomes more immediate, and as competitive media become more available, the challenge of maximizing response becomes ever more sophisticated.

That’s why we, in the vanguard of cataloging, can’t ever sit back and say, “We’re 100% content with our creative decisions.”


Herschell Gordon Lewis is the principal of Lewis Enterprises in Fort Lauderdale, FL, and author of 30 books, including Catalog Copy That Sizzles and Effective E-Mail Marketing.

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