Catalog Copy: Really Good Catalog Writers? How About These?

May 01, 2002 9:30 PM  By

The “teller” for catalog copy is the heading. As we lurch deeper into the hypercompetitive 21st century, I’m more and more convinced that except for two categories — catalogs whose entire mien is “we’re beyond scrabbling around for business” and totally vertical business/industrial catalogs — the print or Web product headline determines whether we have a viable shot at our readers. As Cynic in Residence, I have more fun singling out execrable catalog copy than I do finding exceptional catalog copy. (Execrable copy is easier to find, too.) But fair is fair. And after happening upon a U.K. catalog (they still spell it “catalogue”) whose copy sparkles like a blue-white diamond in the bright sun, I had to find parallel examples in U.S. catalogs. Eureka! I did.

The catalog that brightened my day is called BoysStuff, and I admit: The title alone had me sharpening my claws. But my claws quickly retracted into my paws when I began reading copy — especially headlines — so bright and entertaining I had to get out a magnifying glass, trying to find something, anything execrable. No luck. These people have both talent and discipline, a combination we certainly need but seldom find as a catalog totality.

A few examples (just the openings) of how this catalog transforms strange items we otherwise would pass by into “yes, I’d like that”:

Slam Dunk the Funk

We spend half of our life in the work environment so shouldn’t it be fun? If it isn’t, maybe you need a Slam Dunk inflatable basketball hoop.

Some descriptions are borderline acceptable for publication in Catalog Age. For instance:

Bulls**t Detector

Now you can tell if someone’s telling you porkies. Housed in a slick silver and navy case, the Truster is an astonishingly simple to use, patented lie detector. Using advanced voice recognition technology, it assesses the six global levels of….

Anglophiles that we are, never let it be said that the U.S. lacks catalog creative talent. Lands’ End seems to be having a renaissance with headings such as…

Yes, we can give you a great fit right over the phone!

and…

Why pay pro shop prices?

Tee off in our pima lisle Golf Shirt for only $32.

Notice anything? These aren’t superclever. Better than that: They’re motivational. If you think motivational headlines are easy to write, could you have matched this one from Magellan’s for a hotel room motion detector?

This high-tech motion detector is better than warm milk for a peaceful night’s sleep.

Wind & Weather is a catalog whose headings sometimes confound and sometimes reflect creative brilliance. For a tide clock:

Sorry, Must Run — It’s Low Tide at My Favorite Clamming Beach

Yes, the initial caps and lack of a period are out of sync with my personal idiosyncrasies, but it’s a grabber, as is the extra touch of salesmanship in this one:

Executive Essentials: Atomic Accuracy in a Classic Clock

See the octane those two words “Executive Essentials” add?

Solutions quite regularly includes benefit in its headings. Here’s a silverware organizer with a slot that makes it possible to pick up the item. Where many would have applied the basic descriptive headline, “Wood silverware caddy,” this catalog’s copywriter includes benefit:

Carry all your silverware right to the dinner table.

Simple? For those who regard benefit as the key to sales, it’s more than simple. It’s implicit in copy.

How about a two-line heading?

Will a catalog reader be turned off by a multiline heading? Possibly, because part of a headline’s power stems from its terseness. That’s more true of online catalogs than it is of printed catalogs. But please, please don’t regard that comment as an edict. A headline — whether in a catalog or on a newspaper story — succeeds if it piques interest.

Obviously, headline length has greater latitude if the descriptive copy is longer. Multiline headings on pages devoted entirely to a product are, in fact, probably preferable. A sensible decision is one that asks the question “Is this the optimal way to induce the reader to continue?” and self-answers “Yes.”

Can straight descriptions still compete? That last word, “compete,” strangles any answer because the great bulk of catalogs still have generic headings — “Tufted Rug” “BioStrike Ceiling Fan Filters” “Pineapple Slicer” “Anti-Bark Collar” “Reverse Neck Sweater” “Decanter Drying Stand” “Stainless Steel Olive Oil Mister” “Alexander Julian Watercolours Bedding.”

Each of these is absolutely serviceable because clarity is more valuable than cleverness, if the writer has to choose between those two characteristics.

The question on the table is: Does the writer have the option to choose? If an edict has come down from on high, no decision is to be made. But if not, combining clarity with cleverness can produce not just readable copy, which clarity universally provides, but readable and interesting copy, which holds the individual inside the catalog.

I hope the point is obvious. Cleverness and clarity have to be in sync. Cleverness without clarity is entertaining but not salesworthy. Clarity without cleverness is easy, so easy it isn’t an achievement, and while certainly preferable to cleverness without clarity it isn’t an indicator of high professionalism. Try combining the two. The result will be catalog headings that convince people to read on with enthusiasm. And that’s a battle every catalog copywriter wants to win.


Herschell Gordon Lewis is the principal of Lewis Enterprises. Based in Fort Lauderdale, FL, Lewis is the author of 25 books, including Catalog Copy That Sizzles and Marketing Mayhem. He writes copy for and consults with clients worldwide.