Catalog Copy: It Ain’t Supposed to Be a Challenge

Oct 01, 2003 9:30 PM  By

Is it the Internet postliteracy explosion? Is it the decline and fall of the West, the East, the North, and the South? Is it the incursion onto our turf by bushy-haired intruders? Is it the invasion of the body snatchers, replacing communicators with low-forehead androids? Or maybe as a certified geezer I am becoming unduly annoyed by catalog copy that challenges rather than describes.

If your immediate reaction is “I like challenges,” you’re in the wrong business. Catalogs are a hyper-competitive selling medium. Walk into Home Depot or Wal-Mart, and the lowest-ranking clerk can speak coherently about whatever is in that aisle. Browse through some of this season’s catalogs, and you wish that clerk were at your elbow to explain the explanations.

It’s the rhetoric, stupid

Just to get a job as a catalog copywriter, an individual has to have exhibited an unusual combination of observational, syntactical, and communicative abilities. What happens in many situations is one of two far-from-unique circumstances.

Far-from-unique circumstance number one: The copywriter is so supersaturated with product lore that the ability to write inside the reader’s experiential background rather than his/her own is dulled.

Far-from-unique circumstance number two: The copywriter senses a sameness of descriptions after a day or a week of similar copy blocks and feels the need to break out of the mold. Satisfying that need results in imagery unclear to the reader.

Some of the derelictions are just that — derelictions. We get the idea even when that idea has been mangled. For example, here’s an “outdoors” catalog that shows Frye Boots. All right, anybody who ever has set foot outdoors knows Frye Boots. The first descriptive words:

With over 190 steps going into each pair of boots

The word “steps” relative to boots has an entirely different connotation from “steps” describing a process. The reader has to reconfigure. And that isn’t the reader’s job.

Adjacent is a batch of Stetson hats. Copy says:

Please note that “X” ratings signify hat quality.

And that’s all the explanation we get. Hmm. Here’s a “3X” hat for $69.95 and a “2X” hat for $39.95. Does that mean the “X” rating relates to comparative something-or-other? Nope. Following is an “8X” hat for $49.95. Double hmm. Do not pass Go. Do not collect $69.95.

Here’s a women’s T-shirt touted as having a “relaxed, body-hugging fit.” That doesn’t represent much relaxation, does it?

How can anybody avoid a scatological reaction to Our stool looks right in nearly every bath?

Oops…for exercise, I don’t want a “stationery” bike because I don’t write while biking. A stationary bike might have interested me.

A catalog of “professional skin care and body care” products has this curious description of a skin renewal cream:

Thicken a rubber band and it’s stronger, more resilient. Likewise, all-natural DPHP thickens skin’s cellular wall, opposing thin, collapsing skin.

That warrants a “Huh?”. I thought I understood what they’re pitching, even though the idea of thickening a rubber band suggests an inner-tube-type complexion. Then I hit that word “opposing.” Does this mean I’ll have two kinds of skin, at war with each other? Better stick to wrinkles.

Dulled luster and exhilarated leather

The beginning of a description of a “Lovely Luster Necklace”:

In a triumph of sheen over shine, lustrous pearls complement the shiny patina of matte-finished 18kt gold, the pendant set with turquoise.

What image are we seeing here? Trying to envision “a triumph of sheen over shine” leaves us more confused than clarified. No, it isn’t terrible. No, it isn’t optimal either, because we think we know what the writer was trying to transmit but aren’t able to make the nouns fit.

Here’s a man’s shoe — “The Livigno/Roberto.” Oh, wait a minute. Not in the copy block but in the subsequent product listing we discover that Livigno refers to the shoe in tan or burgundy, while Roberto refers to the shoe in “Black/Lizard-Print,” whatever that means. Note the description and then try to apply it to the shoe:

Italy is an exhilarating mixture of the Renaissance blended with a flavor of today’s relaxed elegance. These calfskin leather dress casuals hold true to that ambiance.

While the writer is holding true to that ambiance, the puzzled reader wonders whether a simpler, clearer opening such as “Only an Italian shoemaker could create such relaxed elegance” might keep the description on track.

One more: “Personalized Fleur-de-Lis Mat.” The full description:

Hand stenciled onto 100% natural coir using fade resistant dyes. Allow 6-8 weeks for delivery. Imported.”

My massive vocabulary failed me here. I had to go to Merriam-Webster to be sure coir is what I think it is. Yep: “A stiff elastic fiber extracted from the outer husk of the coconut, used for making matting.” Maybe some readers of this catalog know the word. Maybe some just assume it’s a fiber mat. And maybe some let the description slip by without generating the buying impulse because they don’t know the word. Why take that risk?

As I said, these examples aren’t terrible. But not being terrible isn’t what any of us regard as the height of catalog copywriting. Let’s all take a look at what we’ve written to see if we’ve de-clarified what should be clear. Better yet, have somebody else take a look at what we’ve written.


Herschell Gordon Lewis is the principal of Lewis Enterprises in Fort Lauderdale, FL.