Award-Winning Copy: A Cut Above

Sep 01, 2003 9:30 PM  By

Each year, I have to repeat a combination of explanation, disclaimer, and regret: I’m not a member of any committee that judges entries for Catalog Age’s Annual Catalog Awards. My personal and private judging is based on communication, not glitz. And obviously, in this limited space, I can’t even attempt commenting on more than a handful. But I’ll risk a general observation: Copy in this year’s winners is, overall, top-notch.

That brings up the logical question: Just what is “top-notch” catalog copy? My personal analysis is that it’s copy drawing a word image accomplishing two goals: clarity and a buying impulse. Simple, isn’t it? Oh, sure, the definition is simple…but the execution demands a professional laying on of hands (or at least fingertips on the keyboards).

And we have to add to the mix the differential between consumer and business catalogs: “Romance” in a business catalog whose products are artistic is mandatory; “romance” in a business catalog whose products are utilitarian can actually suppress response rather than enhance it.

Hero Arts is a business catalog whose products are artistic: rubber stamp components for those who want to create their own greeting cards.

This Silver Award winner (in the Wholesale/Dealer category, which had no Gold winner) walks a delicate tightrope. Copy is spartan and not particularly inspiring:“Poetic Prints flowers and shells come from rare 18th-century etchings”; “Small woodblock stamp, ink, and 10 cards and envelopes create a self-contained set of beautiful expression”; “Art Prints use intriguing symbols from around the world to launch the imagination.” Intermixed with these are literary quotes, such as “Between the conception and the creation, Between the emotion and the response, Falls the Shadow — T.S. Eliot.”

Hmmm. That may be the difference between Silver and Gold.

Consumer Specialty winner

Orvis usually winds up with a Gold Award or two. This year the company’s Dog Book won a Gold in the Consumer Specialty category. (Orvis also won in the Sporting Goods category.)

Here’s a duopoly — copy and illustration share the glory. The photographs of pets — yes, a cat occasionally appears — are Award-winning caliber on their own. And the cheerful copy sparkles. A couple of first lines of text:

Only food could get a half-dozen happy-go-lucky lab pups to sit this still.

When your dog sinks into the comfortable puff center of this cozy nest, it will think life can’t get any better.

Bouncy, buoyant and peppermint scented.

If your dog chews through regular rawhide like it’s paper, Chunky Chews may be the answer.

You get the idea. That’s a Gold Award winner.

Catalog of the Year

Patagonia not only won Gold Awards in both the Retail and the Consumer Specialty categories; its Fall 2002 catalog was also named Catalog of the Year.

Analyzing the copy of this superb example of catalog excellence isn’t easy, because some of the more common and more accepted “rules” of catalog copywriting lie in fragments. For example, Patagonia’s first sentences are long, not short:

Fusing shell and insulation into a single, dynamic layer, Integrals are ideal soft-shell pants for wind-whipped ski days, sunless snowshoeing or climbing forays.

Wow! That demands reader literacy, another dangerous move.

Patagonia’s copy isn’t tricky, though. It combines benefit with description. (“Benefiption”?) For a Glacier Cap: “Whether it’s the next switchback, ridge or pitch, the Glacier Cap keeps your noggin warm.” For a double-weave skirt: “This perky little skirt adopts whatever attitude you do.”

Incidentally, Patagonia eschews the contemporary technique of benefit-oriented headings. Theirs are purely product descriptive — but these are augmented with bylined “Field Reports” and photographs of products in use under extreme conditions, validating any claim. Nothing seems accidental or casually inserted in this catalog.

This little piggy…

This big piggy is New Pig’s Pigalog 2003 Buying Guide, which won a Gold Award in the Industrial Supplies category. Industry observers are long since past the point of marveling at the intensity and brightness of an industrial catalog that dares to take an irreverent and entertaining position.

Sophomoric? Oh, no. The creators of this catalog know when entertainment has to give way to salesmanship. So both product descriptions and photos solidly adhere to the Clarity Commandment.

Descriptions are doubly clear because the headings are as specific as the text. One example — the headline is long and clear: “Specially-treated Stat-Mat Pads and Rolls reduce the risk of generating static electricity when absorbing flammable liquids.” The heading alone can suffice as text, but New Pig doesn’t stop there. Ample copy is in proper sequence, with benefit-laden text followed by bulleted features. The first sentence of text for this item: “If you use petroleum-based solvents, you know that their vapors can create a potentially-explosive situation, especially in spaces with less-than-adequate ventilation.” Too many hyphens? Yup. But that’s so minor an item we can’t dub it an offense.

Let’s go there

Mountain Travel Sobek and Wilderness Travel each won a Gold Award in the Travel category. Both these catalogs are as rich with colorful text as they are rich with colorful photographs.

Wilderness Travel rhapsodizes about the day-to-day itinerary; Mountain Travel Sobek condenses the itinerary and instead rhapsodizes about the experience. One quick example of the differential is a two-page description of a tour of Mont Blanc (the mountain, not the pen). Mountain Travel Sobek’s description of days 1 and 2: “Fly to Geneva, Switzerland, and transfer to Chamonix, France.” Wilderness Travel’s description of days 1 and 2: “We meet in Chamonix, the classic mountaineering resort at the foot of Mont Blanc. The next day, our warm-up hike to Lac Blanc presents the full glory of the Mont Blanc massif.”

I certainly don’t have room to parallel the total descriptions, but I’d call the overall reading experience a draw. Both catalogs are written by writers, and it shows.

But how about…

We’ve only tasted the copy in the Gold Award winners and, regretfully, bypassed copy in most of the Silver winners and all the finalists. Quel dommage, because every one of us in this fascinating and frustrating business can profit from observation of what both winners and losers are doing…or not doing.

I’d apologize for not exploring at greater depth, but I have only this space, not the whole publication.


Herschell Gordon Lewis (herschellgordonlewis.com) is the principal of Lewis Enterprises in Fort Lauderdale, FL. Author of 26 books, he writes copy for and consults with clients worldwide.