The annual best and worst catalog copy

Jan 01, 1999 10:30 PM  By

For some years, I’ve screwed up my courage and followed the happy holidays with opinions-some civilized, some savage. This year, I’m nonplused because in exasperation I’ve transferred a catalog I’ve lauded for years into the “five worst” dungeon. And-gulp-for the first time I’m including a bright and shiny Web catalog among the near-best. n Whether applauded or booed, all the catalogs on the upper or lower list should accept or reject these positions with an intellectual asterisk: You’re reading opinions. Quite regularly, criticizing a catalog’s creativity or effectiveness results in a letter, a fax, an e-mail, or a phone call: “It brought the best results we’ve ever had.”

Yeah, sure.

Well, friends, my answer has to be “I told you these are opinions. Is your reaction to my opinion a fact? Or is your reaction an opinion too?”

Finding the five best isn’t easy. Catalog copy seems to have taken an exponential leap upward over the past few years. More catalog copywriters are dedicating their rhetoric to exciting the reader to the boiling/buying point, and that, after all, is our ultimate purpose.

Finding the five worst isn’t easy, either. After all, a catalog that stays in business for more than three issues isn’t written (nor supervised) by idiots or troglodytes. It has to have some competitive selling power. So to those whose titles appear on that inglorious list, an apologetic defense: You’re there only because I grade on the curve, not because your catalog is execrable.

One more disclaimer and we’ll get down to business: I don’t see every catalog. If yours is particularly execrable and I haven’t said so, it’s your list company’s fault, not mine.

These almost made the top five:

The Baker’s Catalog As a certified breadaholic, I’ve become sensitized to descriptions of baking ingredients. The Baker’s Catalog has me salivating. Descriptions such as this one describe possibilities many of us didn’t know exist (I’ll reprint just the first few lines):

Lora Brody Bread Dough Enhancers Many bakers claim they can’t seem to get the lovely high rise and fine texture they want, that signature “look” of the perfect loaf of bread. Well, Lora Brody’s Bread Dough EnhancerTM, an all-natural combination of….

Just the word “Well” adds rapport. What might have been a dry description of ingredients becomes personalized, despite the “TM” intrusion.

Wise Up! This unimposing little catalog of telephone sales aids typifies what a catalog can achieve without an abundance of products, heavy production, or notoriety. Most of its offerings are videotapes, audiotapes, and books. What lifts the descriptions above the ordinary is inclusion of rationale as well as description. Example:

Getting Through to Buyers While the Others are Screened Out

Ever do a slow-burn when you get screened out by a secretary? Or how about the hair-pulling feeling of leaving multiple voice mail messages, which are ignored. This won’t happen again when you use the secrets in this video. You’ll learn:….

Some little stuff here: I don’t agree with hyphenating “slow burn,” and the word “learn” is a deadly one. But you get the flavor. (In another description, a paperback is “jammed” with ideas. Uh…don’t you mean “crammed”?)

Chef’s Catalog online A Website that displays merchandise in an orderly, coherent, and quick-to-find manner is worthy of accolades. I’d guess the millennial “best and worst” selections might include a Web catalog. And why not? Faster than anyone other than computer fanatics had anticipated, the Web is becoming a viable marketing medium. Chef’s Catalog, in its online incarnation, exemplifies the maturation of both the Web and its vendors. We can assume consumers are next.

HealthSmart Vitamins I buy from this company, so obviously I’m convinced its copy sells. What keeps this catalog out of the top five is an irritant that really isn’t a copy problem; it’s a merchandising problem: The pricing of some items doesn’t make sense. For example, one hundred 25mg DHEA tablets are $11.89; one hundred 50mg DHEA tablets are $27.99. Hold it, HealthSmart. If I buy two hundred 25mg tablets, I have the equivalent of one hundred 50 mg tablets, for $4.21 less. This seems to be inside-out pricing. But I like headings such as “Power up muscles, not fat.”

Lillian Vernon I like catalog copy that shows enthusiasm. I like catalog copy that sells. This catalog has both, invariably sneaking in a reason to buy, even though the copy blocks aren’t huge. Sometimes the reason is a “freebie”-free personalization, or buy two, get one free. More often, it’s in the offer itself. Here’s a marvelous description from a recent catalog:

I Love Your Silver Candlesticks!

That’s what friends will say, but only you’ll know the secret-they’re heavy aluminum, polished to silvery perfection and tarnish-free for a lifetime! Classic Early-American design in set of 3….

Why weren’t all these catalogs in the top five? Because what we have here are opinions, and opining is an imperfect science.

Meet the top five!

Best no. 1: The Territory Ahead Every now and then, along comes a catalog that’s just darned good reading. This catalog somehow transforms its product descriptions into an entertaining little tale. Obviously, entertainment is the alpha but not the omega; the omega is salesworthy copy. The Territory Ahead has both. A short example, and believe me, I could have chosen dozens:

V-Neck Comes of Age Sweater

This is not the old, deep valley V-neck sweater that haunted your father’s wardrobe and enjoyed celebrity as the garment de rigueur in various Naugahyde-Martini Lounges of the late ’60s. No, this one’s a lot more hip. We shortened the plunge of the neckline to a very shallow V, then contemporized the edges by rolling them. The fabric….

Imagery far beyond platitudes: That’s what winners are made of.

Best, no. 2: Drs. Foster & Smith As just about every pet lover knows, these aren’t medical doctors; they’re veterinarians. And their catalog is as much a manual of healthcare as it is 148 pages of product for sale. One has to feel these guys really care about puppies and kittens, so the confidence factor-a vanishing commodity in today’s marketplace-scores high. Here’s the beginning of a typical description from Drs. Foster & Smith:

* Drs. Foster & Smith Vita-CTM-Vitamin C

* High potency Vitamin C tablets

* Timed-release formula for all-day benefit

Most forms of Vitamin C are quickly eliminated from the body and must be given several times a day. Our micro-encapsulated formula provides slow, consistent release for all-day protection in a single dose. Pets deficient in Vitamin C are less resistant to bacterial and viral diseases and are believed to be more susceptible to arthritis, joint disease, muscle strain and stiffness….

What you can’t see here are the many copy blocks devoted entirely to pet health problems and what to do about them, unrelated to product sell. This catalog has occasional grammatical glitches, such as same-phrase reference to “pet” and “them,” mixing singular and plural. But we forgive you, good fellas.

Best, no. 3: Signatures I’m including this one reluctantly, not because the copy isn’t top-notch but because it’s a bunch of unbound loose sheets, and hard to keep together.

But Signatures has been around for a while, so I assume it has tested the format, and anyway, that doesn’t affect the copy, our basis of judgment.

Take a look at this gem, for a hand-held spelling corrector:

Can it really be…potatoe? Certainly not, as you’ll learn from Franklin’s 80,000-word spelling corrector. Simply type in the word as you think it’s spelled…and the correct spelling pops up in the display. No more embarrassing mistakes in your correspondence. This compact 2-1/2″ x 4″ device defines easily confused words, helps with crossword puzzles, and plays hangman and anagrams too. Battery, carry case and instructions included.

How many copywriters would have thought of those first four words?

Best, no. 4: Backroads I feel guilty including this one, because it has two implicit advantages over almost every other catalog. First, it’s huge, with ample space for rhapsodizing such as:

Take the zest of Cajun country and the refined elegance of colonial plantations, blend them in a bubbling pot with Civil War history and Southern hospitality, and you have Louisiana….

Second, even though we’re discussing copy, no one can ignore the magnificent production of this perfect-bound 172-page catalog of biking/hiking trips. But logic has to triumph over guilt, and yes, copy in Backroads is gilt-edged. The company has some masterful wordsmiths working on this one.

Best, no. 5: Home Trends What? The Fuller Brush catalog is in the top five?

I’ll tell you why: Paralleling the legendary door-to-door sales techniques of bygone eras, this catalog sells benefit from front to back, making it impossible for the reader to skim through this catalog without having the urge to buy something. After all, isn’t that the Kingdom of Heaven in our little universe?

Look at these irresistible headlines:

Stop dragging your vacuum cleaner up and down those stairs.

Clean under appliances without ever moving them.

Add inches to the waistband or collar of any jeans, skirt, slacks, shorts or shirt.

Keep bright whites and bold colors in the wash-together.

Averaging more than a dozen items on each page, Home Trends is the kind of catalog we should produce more often-one whose entire purpose is to get the phone and the cash register to ring.

About the bottom five… A disclaimer is in order. None of these are terrible. None should be driven out of the corps. None generate an “oh, my God!” recoil.

What these represent is-opinion-a less-than-maximized attention to, ergo effectiveness in, generating any of the key elements of catalog marketing: rapport, positioning, and persuasion. Is this an attitudinal problem, stemming from the top? The recipient of a catalog doesn’t care about corporate philosophy.

Worst, no. 1: Joan Cook It pains me to include this catalog, because Joan Cook is a Fort Lauderdale expatriate. But this catalog has a weak, no-sell president’s letter (on the reverse side of the order form), plus boilerplate descriptions that often make points oblique to use or appearance. For example, the copy for a tissue box:


Captivating hand painted poinsettias make this tin tissue holder a perfect added touch when decorating for the holiday season. Use it in any room for a cheerful, festive touch.

“Touch” repeated, plus words as words (“Use it in any room”) qualify this catalog for the lower group.

Worst, no. 2: Neiman Marcus Neiman Marcus has lost it.

Now don’t rise up in outraged wrath because I’m attacking an icon of retail marketing. The Neiman Marcus catalog has always been understated. But friends, understated doesn’t justify nonstated. Along with an apparent addiction to models with disconcerting lip injections, this catalog is so far removed from salesmanship that one gets the impression the company is bored with its own offerings. A typical example (the complete description):

Linda Allard for Ellen Tracy. Plum melton jacket or wool/nylon/cashmere. Lined. Imported for sizes 2-16. Mauve, long-sleeve turtleneck of extra-fine merino wool. Imported for sizes P,S,M,L,XL. Also available at Sport Shop at selected NM stores. For skirt, see item 8D.

As I said, they’ve lost it. (Excepted: the Neiman Marcus Christmas catalog, a once-a-year event that still has pace.)

Worst, no. 3: COMB Unlike its parent, Damark, COMB hasn’t realized that positioning itself as a discount source requires evidence as well as claim. Descriptions range from cute to dispassionate, sometimes becoming too cute or flat. An example:

Italian Office Chair

Wake up that 1970s fashion plate when you sit in this Italian “go-go” office chair. The high-quality molded plastic seat rests on a 5-star rolling base with gas lift that moves the height from 17″ to 22″. The black chair’s base is made of heavy duty molded plastic. Seat and back is wide for your comfort. Dimensions: 17-1/3″L x 18″W x 33-1/2″H. Assembly required.

Yeah, hammer home “molded plastic.” On the same page three sports watches, $499.99, $599.99, and $899.99, with no justification for the most expensive one. A basic rule of catalog copy: Buyer confidence diminishes in ratio to a decrease in specificity.

Worst, no. 4: American Express Promenade I have a gut feeling that American Express hasn’t assigned catalog copywriters to this project. The description of a $995 TAG Heuer wristwatch, for example, begins:

Superior craftsmanship, refined design. Two-tone stainless steel timepiece flaunts an ivory dial and professional sports watch features.

Hey, I have a $29 Casio with professional sports watch features… unflaunted, though. Here is the entire description of a piece of jewelry:

Exclusive NEW Diamond Eternity Bangle

Show her how much you love her with this breathtaking American Express exclusive. Breathtaking. 14kt. gold bangle with 4.0-ct. t.w. pave, round and baguette diamonds.

Okay, okay, it’s breathtaking. We get the point. What we don’t get is exploitation or justification of the word “exclusive.”

Worst, no. 5: J. Jill I dunno. Are we reentering the Ice Age? This catalog and others seem to have bolted from the rapport/ friend/enthusiasm team, back to the cold, no-romance description. The models smile, but the copy doesn’t. An example:

Lettuce-edged turtleneck

Finely ribbed cotton. Double-needle stitching for reinforcement. 25″ length. Machine wash. Imported. Colors shown from front to back: heather oatmeal, herb, walnut, heather grey, boysenberry, white or black. Only at J. Jill.

It’s educational, with two kinds of heather, although from the photograph I can’t see where “oatmeal” pertains. Staccato writing has one problem: It calls attention to itself as a technique, and when attention splits, impact diminishes.

And that’s it for this season!

Depending on your own view of your catalog, you might have two reasons to be annoyed: Your book wasn’t one of the five best, or it was one of the five worst.

There’s always next year. And there’s always this completely logical repudiation, for us both: These are opinions.