What Happens When Copywriters Make Misguided Assumptions

Sep 02, 2011 9:30 PM  By

Along with the necessarily competitive trend of emphasizing benefit over features, another trend is emerging in catalog copy, and leaking over to email and both envelope copy and the opening of direct response sales letters: Assumption.

Okay you’re asking what that means, because “assumption” can refer to a whole raft of elements. In our marketing ambiance, it’s a dangerous trend because copy assumes a product knowledge equivalent to knowledge stemming from day-by-day contact with whatever it is we’re selling.

Clarity? What’s that?

Here’s a product description. The heading: “Found Bells.”

I googled “Found Bells.” As comprehensive as Google is, the number of entries was … zilch. What came up was “Bell’s Palsy,” which somehow I concluded isn’t what the marketer is selling. So, on to the body-copy. This is the complete description (quotation marks are mine):

“NEW Each is a unique found object and arrives in its own drawstring jute pouch. Let us pick one for you. Handcrafted of weathered iron. Size ranges: 7-9″H. $35 Each.”

Let’s make some assumptions of our own. First, we can assume that the amount of allocated space is what it is. Second, we can assume that although the possibility of familiarity with the term “Found Bells” exists, since the two words in that sequence are Google-proof, the typical recipient of this catalog needs a quick explanation — quick because of where it is, mid-page in a print catalog.

In its web presence, clarity springs to life for these bells. The heading: “One Of a Kind Cowbell.” Oh, so that’s what they are. The online description apparently was written by someone considerably more familiar with the item than whoever filled space in the printed catalog:

“Add a rustic touch to a table or bookshelf. Each unique shape is based on a found vintage cowbell and arrives in its own drawstring jute pouch. You will receive any one of five styles. Our reproductions are crafted of weathered iron.”

The usual web penalty: A visitor has to look doggedly to find the item. It doesn’t appear just from flitting around the site.

Targeting justifies exclusions

Catalogs and mailings aimed at specific target-groups have a major creative advantage over generalized appeals: Skirting easily around the ancient “Reach the most people” maxim, “Reach the right people” excludes those outside the interest-orbit — and by tighter targeting increases response.

An example of targeting is a catalog aimed at individuals who enjoy adventure — and who physically exemplify enjoyment of adventure. A page heading: “Sometimes five pockets just aren’t enough.” Immediately below is a pair of jeans.

To the uninitiated, it’s a “Huh?” To the do-it-yourselfer and home craftsman, it’s a “How right you are.”

Starting the copy with that benefit means that a product-specific heading, “Territory Carpenter Jeans,” is ample. Then a burst of validating copy, the first overlong sentence and the next open the copy-block: “For those of you who know your joists from your jack rafters and your speed square from your cat’s paw, the rugged, pocketed and looped utilitarian attributes of these jeans are obvious. For those of you who don’t, well, it’s never a bad thing to try to look like you’re handy.”

Copy critics — including me — might assail “those of you,” preferring “If you’re.” And the terminology might be so clever it’s overly exclusive. I like the jeans but I don’t know a joist from a jack rafter, so maybe I’d better head to Walmart.

Splitting the difference

Does danger exist when a consumer catalog uses this headline?

“Zürsun heirloom beans, lentils & grains”

Maybe. On the negative side, leading with “Zürsun” (described in the text as “a pioneering company in Idaho”) doesn’t seem to have much zeitgeist (described in this column as “spirited and trendy”).

That ampersand is a peculiar substitution for the simple word “and,” for which there was plenty of room.

On the positive side, uniqueness is evident from the very name. And, backed by a super-clear product photograph, that word transmits an instant image of exceptionality.

Oops. I’ve used up available space for this issue. Let’s leave the issue we’re discussing at this:

Exclusivity is a major selling force. But don’t make what you’re selling seem so exclusive that it excludes an entire cadre of potential customers.

Herschell Gordon Lewis is the principal of Lewis Enterprises (www.herschellgordonlewis.com) in Pompano Beach, FL.