Catalog Copy: Generic Wording–Can’t We Do Better?

Dec 01, 2002 10:30 PM  By

Consider an absolute rule of…well, of everything: Specifics out-sell generalizations. If you accept that concept you automatically accept that marching-in-place generalizations in catalog copy are less than beneficial. ▪ We long since have learned how to stop the eye with headlines. They may be statements of what’s for sale (“Hurricane Lamp”) or they may suggest a benefit (“Power Washer cleans anything with 29 times more water pressure than a garden hose”) or they may be inspirational (“Your wrist has never looked so glamorous”). However crafted, each of these is a specific.

Surprisingly often, the quick step down to body copy results in abandonment of specificity. Some of the heat the headline has created begins to dissipate. So a salesworthy maxim might be: The headline seizes attention. The body copy sells.

Grabbing attention and then not selling parallels buying a gun and pulling the trigger without bothering to buy or insert ammunition. But some infernal creative machine seems to be grinding out catalog copywriters whose interest in what they’re selling begins and ends with the crucial but not end-all heading.

What’s the difference between these two first sentences of descriptive copy for casual shoes, on the same page of a catalog?

One description begins: When the sun shines, it’s huarache time.

Another begins: Give in to the temptation.

Sure. The difference is the difference between a product-related first sentence and a generic first sentence.

“Give in to the temptation” would work as a heading. I opine that as a first sentence, it’s less reader-involving than even “Sure! Why not let this sandal tempt you?”

The point isn’t that generic first lines are implicitly poor; it’s that we aren’t in space ads, and we aren’t in e-mail. We’re in a catalog, where specifics are king.

Compare a few

Which first line would have the best chance of persuading the reader to keep reading?

For bedsheets:

Brahms’ Lullaby literally sings in natural harmony.

or…

A symphony of color, pattern, and texture to delight the senses.

or…

The impact of understated luxury.

or…

Italian sheeting of 406-count Egyptian cotton percale completely hand finished with exquisite embroidery, hemstitching, and French knot clusters.

Yes, I know the comparisons are both unequal and unfair, since that fourth one is half of the total description. But wouldn’t you rate the first — the Brahms reference — as the weakest, because in rhetoric and in life, generics — however poetic — are weaker salespeople than specifics?

Let’s try one for outdoor mats:

Design is exclusively ours.

or…

Durable polypropylene boat rope mats won’t rot or wear out.

Both those were on the same page. Both accompanied clear photographs of the mats. While exclusivity is a major motivator, extending it to outdoor mats is a stretch.

Too, I haven’t yet disclosed the headings on any of these. Of course headings affect both readership and salesmanship, but they aren’t the subject of this analysis. What we’re after here isn’t as subtle as the casual catalog-skimmer may think. We’re analyzing the attitudinal shift, upward or downward, as the eye moves from the heading to the body copy.

After pointing out my standard litany — specifics outsell generalizations — I have to lapse back into an ancient but always valid generalization: The headline seizes attention. The body copy sells.

An ombudsman, please

Proofreaders are a necessity for anyone who deals with words. Most of us writer-hacks can spot another writer’s misspellings or grammatical errors a block away, but we’re blind when we skim over our own copy.

Proofreaders themselves can be blind to repetitions that dull catalog descriptions. I still remember the ill-fated catalog that used the word “explodes” about 50 times in each issue.

When a repetition becomes noticeable, it absolutely qualifies as overrepetition. Here’s a catalog of women’s wear. Just a few first lines of body copy:

  • Simple and comfortable enough to wear every day.
  • Simple, casual luxury in supple Italian calfsuede.
  • A perfectly simple skirt.
  • Simple and versatile.
  • Simple, timeless design in superb quality Italian lambskin.
  • Simple and modern.

Well, you get the idea. I’m nowhere near halfway through the pages, and I simply declare this is a simple case of oversimplified simplicity. An ombudsman would have caught this overuse. (Proofreading for this catalog is impeccable.)

Are you asking, “So what? What’s the difference?” If so, try, in a conversation, using a word to death. You’ll get strange looks from the other person. To qualify for overuse, a word doesn’t have to be hyper-noticeable, such as “explodes”; it can be as simple and quiescent a word as “simple.”

The wordsmith imperative

We’re wordsmiths. Let’s use words, not just excrete them. Professional catalog copywriting is a profession. Professional and profession demand each other.

From this moment on, don’t just write a clever, dynamic headline and sit back in faux comfort, regarding the body text as secondary. We’re professionals. We’re wordsmiths. We leave such simplistic attitudes to simple word excreters.


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