The annual best and worst of catalog copy

Jan 01, 2000 10:30 PM  By

This job gets tougher and tougher. In the year 2000, online catalogs not only are achieving equivalence (and maybe, within the next five years, dominance); they represent an entirely different challenge to the person judging their effectiveness. For example, a printed catalog I feel is one of the poorest has a Web version I regard as superior. Figure that one out!

This year, for the first time, a Web catalog is in the winner’s circle. Too, this year is the first in which business catalogs made neither the best nor the worst list. Did I miss some outstanding ones and some execrable ones?

I can’t claim receipt of every consumer and business catalog, so my evaluations are based on the hundreds I do get. I’m guessing that for every dozen printed catalogs I can study, I can stagger through three or four pages of one online catalog. And that’s with my high-speed computer connection.

I admit with cheer and exhaustion that undoubtedly I’ve missed some superior Web catalogs. It’s the curse of the medium.

And curse is what I sometimes do, in Websites such as Lands’ End: heavily promoted, brilliantly mounted, and as difficult to navigate as Mount Everest. I love Lands’ End. I’m a customer. But not on the Web.

Now, here’s an additional complication: By the time you read this, any comments about Web catalogs may be obsolete. Sites change and update overnight. We’re deep in the second generation of Websites, and sophistication among both Webmasters (I hate that word) and visitors is rocketing at warp speed.

Enough of these disclaimers. You get the idea. Let’s take a look at the winners and losers.

These three almost made the winners’ list:


Here is a catalog aimed at teenage girls. What makes it outstanding is its total understanding of its targets. Product descriptions don’t get cute. That’s because the catalog realizes that its customers take their purchases seriously. But peripheral copy is blindingly radiant:

- It’s so quiet you can hear a pinwale drop. Pinwale Skirt, page 29.

- Plan a fiesta: chips, salsa, piuata, Lacie Dress, page 63.

- Russians say Klubnika. In Sweden, it’s Jordgubbe. Hawaiians call it Ohelo-papa. We just call it strawberry. Strawberry Hat, page 39.

I’m not a teenage girl but if I were, this catalog would be a companion I’d show to my troop to initiate a group order.

J. Crew Online

J. Crew has a no-nonsense Website, with quick and accurate jumps from link to link. Copy is workmanlike and, in sync with the second-generation Web shopper, to the point, with no wasted words. No wasted words means no romance. Such spartan copy can’t make the top five, but it’s worthy of mention.


One of the most difficult tasks any catalog faces is standing out in the crowd of home decor Christmas catalogs. Panache accomplishes this feat, projecting the image of exclusivity, by establishing a “club” ambience. Headings avoid holiday triteness with wording such as “Formal can be fun, too,” “Deco Doll,” “Beyond the Ice Bucket,” and “Offerings for the Gods (and the Guests).”

Now, on to the winner’s circle.

Best, no. 1: Williams-Sonoma

It won’t surprise anyone that Williams-Sonoma is in the top five. Here is a catalog that combines three difficult copy elements – specificity, brightness, and sell.

That the catalog is visually arresting is a plus, but we’re discussing copy. Here’s an example of the combination of specificity, brightness, and sell:

Cocktail Devils

The chili fields that stretch westward from El Paso, Texas, through New Mexico inspired the creation of this tempting combination. This slightly spicy blend of green chili-roasted pistachios, red chili-roasted pecans, cheddar cheese biscuits and cayenne biscuits is a great foil for your guests’ favorite cocktails. The unopened shelf life is 6 months; once opened, about 6 minutes. 16 oz.

We not only know exactly what we’re getting; we order with preconditioned enthusiasm.

Best, no. 2: Orvis

If you’re looking for flashy copy, forget this one. Orvis represents quiet salesmanship backed by solid makes-you-want-to-buy descriptions.

Here is just the opening of a typical Orvis description:

Bozeman Corduroy Pants

Ever notice how fast most corduroy wears out these days? A few months’ wear and tear and there’s no wale left at the knee. We tracked down a mill in France that….

Heads nod yes, that’s right…and hands pick up the phone.

Best, no. 3: Brooks Brothers Online

Brooks Brothers combines the link-to-link speed of J. Crew with the salesmanship of a printed catalog.

Overall, Brooks Brothers does a smooth job. But, as is true of almost every Web catalog, glitches exist. After selecting “men” for men’s department, I entered “pants.” A listing of pants quickly appeared. On a whim, I typed in “trousers.” Even though I was supposedly in the men’s department, and “men” was still highlighted, women’s trousers filled the screen. I guess that shows which gender wears the pants (except in my household).

Best, no. 4: Deutsche Optik

This remarkable catalog has some regrettable typos, but I’m assuming that the copywriter isn’t at fault (possibly a rash assumption in a disk-and-e-mail era).

What makes Deutsche Optik outstanding is description after description that includes a mini-history of the item, plus what seems to be unusual candor. The beginning of a typical description:

Miniature Field Tripod

There are a lot of little tripods out there and, frankly, most of them are crap. Not this one, however. Manufactured in Italy by high-end tripod maker Manfrotto, this little device is made of heavy-duty aluminum with a corrosion-resistant finish….

Somehow, we don’t expect statements such as “a lot of them are crap” in a catalog with the name Deutsche Optik. That’s part of the appeal.

Best, no. 5 – tie: Bas Bleu and The Baker’s Catalog

What a gem the Bas Bleu catalog is. Bas Bleu sells books. The catalog itself is as readable as a powerful piece of literature. You want to order every book. Copy is written in the first person, by president Eleanor Edmondson, or whoever writes in her name.

Descriptions are too lengthy to quote in their entirety, so you’ll have to be satisfied with a taste. Here is a sample, for a book titled The Diaries of Adam and Eve:

Here’s something new from Mark Twain. Editor Don Roberts compiled passages from six lesser-known works – some previously unpublished – in which Twain “translated” the thoughts of Eden’s first couple. The Diaries of Adam and Eve are rife with Twain’s signature humor: a bold Eve sends a nervous Adam scuttling up a tree; the newborn Cain is mistaken for a fish….

Don’t you want to read the book, based on the exquisitely selected snippets? I do.

The Baker’s Catalog shares Bas Bleu’s love of what it sells and love of words. And like Bas Bleu, as an experience in reading it’s a delight. But for us as catalog marketers, what lifts The Baker’s Catalog to the top plateau is that its copy makes you want to buy.

All descriptions are a single paragraph, regardless of length, but because the writing is perfect we don’t notice that we’ve plowed through a drawn-out paragraph until we’ve moved on to another description (or entered an order). One example, of hundreds in the catalog:

Baker’s Cinnamon Filling

Is there a more comforting smell in the whole wide world than that of a hot cinnamon roll, fresh from the oven, or a slice of cinnamon-swirl toast? But how do you make that thick, rich cinnamon filling, the kind you furtively scoop up and eat off your finger when you unroll a cinnamon bun? The secret is Baker’s Cinnamon Filling, an all-natural combination of our heady Saigon-type cinnamon, extra-fine Baker’s Special Sugar, and dry shortening, designed to be mixed with water and spread on bread dough to make buns or a swirled loaf. Or dollop it on cake batter for a wonderful coffeecake. In a 24-ounce bag, enough for about three batches of buns, or four loaves of bread.

While I’m still salivating, let’s look at the less fortunate.

A major stipulation

Each year, finding catalogs that justify inclusion in a “worst” category gets more difficult. The five dissected here are simply victims of grading on the curve. They just aren’t as sprightly, as convincing, as salesworthy, as others.

Worst, no. 1: Improvements

What needs improvement in Improvements is depth of description. This problem became apparent early on, in the description of a Vent Brush whose purpose is to get rid of lint in the dryer hose. I had tried one once, and all it did was push the lint deeper into the hose. There’s nothing in the copy to make me think this one won’t have the same negative result. I need more convincing.

Here’s a machine-washable runner, 20 feet long and 2 feet wide. Copy says I can “just throw it in the washer!” Oh? Ever try throwing a 20-foot rug into a washing machine, except for one of those giant industrial-size washers?

Worst, no. 2: The Lighthouse Catalog

The Lighthouse is one of the worthiest not-for-profit organizations I know of. Its purpose is to make life easier for the visually impaired. Many of the items in its catalog reflect that purpose – phones and clocks with giant numerals, talking caller ID, and magnifiers.

But the catalog competes for sales, so why not capitalize on benefits? For example, this total description:

Gooseneck Magnifier

As versatile as your needs! 12″ gooseneck extends and bends to any angle, 2X magnifier ideal for enlarging type on books, newspapers, even food and CD packages! Sturdy base fits on any desk, tabletop.

I know you spotted and cringed at “As versatile as your needs!” Beyond that, this copy might have said, “You don’t have to give up your needlepoint, or put away your stamp collection forever,” and emphasized the result of enlargement rather than the fact of enlargement.

Worst, no. 3: Simply Southwest

How close this one could have come to being outstanding! What sinks it is dependence on “loose” adjectives, not tied to specifics or benefit.

Here’s one whose headline made me think it was designed for Calista Flockhart:


Two terrific separates! Silk crepe de chine skirt has easy elastic waist, three tiers, 36″ long. Slightly oversized, scoop neck, nubby raw silk tucks in or out. Long sleeves. Hand washable.

One gets the feeling the writer was rushing to make a train.

For a painted handbag and wallet: “Enjoy these fun and fancy pieces”; for a teal rayon top: “Add rich color to your wardrobe.” See? It isn’t terrible. It’s just nonspecific, computer-written.

Worst, no. 4: Flax Art & Design

If you don’t know this catalog, guess what it represents. Art and design, right? Wellll…

I like this catalog. I like what it represents. That’s why I’m more disturbed by the “huh?” reactions some of the descriptions generate than I would be if it were more nondescript. An example:


Ever been in a gallery, staring at the art, and wishing you had some candy? If this masterpiece were showing, you wouldn’t have that problem. The wall mounted Pop Art Handy Candy dispenser frame actually comes with gumballs, but can be easily refilled with M&Ms or your favorite hard candy. Just turn the knob for a quick treat! 12″x15″x2-3/4″ (including knob).

Worst, no. 5: Stress Less

Am I groping to find a fifth negative candidate? Maybe. In a year more fertile with problem-laden catalogs, this would have escaped unscathed.

Here is a catalog loaded with superb, useful products. Who says they’re superb and wonderful? I do. The copywriter does a professional job of describing (except for occasional grammatical lapses) but seems once removed from benefit. Copy seems aimed inward rather than outward.

I know that’s a difficult concept to explain. Analyze this description:

Esalen Massage Video

Shot on location at the acclaimed Esalen Institute in California, this beautiful award winning video instructs you in step-by-step massage techniques from this world renowned facility. Presents a complete full body session combining long strokes, gentle rocking and stretching, sculpting of deep musculature in the precision of Chinese pointwork. 75 Min.

See the sales problem? Benefit is masked by reverence for Esalen. That the video won an award – whose? – has only peripheral significance. What is the benefit of an Esalen massage, as opposed to a Swedish massage? To what does “the precision of Chinese pointwork” refer? What is Chinese pointwork, anyway? You get the idea. At least I hope you do.

And we survive for another year

With the arrogance that usually attends uneducated guesses, I’m guessing that the 2001 list of best and worst will have more candidates from the World Wide Web. I’m guessing that some business catalogs will leap out of the pack and others will become more nondescript.

Come to think of it, I’m also guessing that we’ll all be here in 2001. That’s the biggest guessing game of all, isn’t it?