Catalog Copy: Sticking My Head into the Lion’s Mouth

Jan 01, 2003 10:30 PM  By

I have to keep reminding myself, as well as reminding you readers, of two factors: First, these are opinions. Every mail order marketing professional who reads Catalog Age has seen (and maybe worked for) catalogs that either won awards and dropped dead in generating orders…or were dismissed as amateurish and underproduced yet brought in bushel baskets of orders. Opinions are valid only to the one who opines. I’m foisting mine on you, as I do in this magazine each January, out of a combination of judgments based on a combination of professional scar tissue and just plain cussedness.

Second, we’re looking at copy and only at copy. Glitz and 200-lb. enamel paper and Websites that spin and whirl are outside the orbit of these comments. Great copy can’t always rescue a catalog that’s severely deficient in other areas, but deficient copy can damage a catalog that’s superb in other areas. So if you’re familiar with the catalogs chosen here either for exaltation or for damnation, isolate copy from the other elements as you accept or reject these comments.

One other point: Selecting the best five is no job at all compared with digging around for the poorest five. And that a catalog is on that second list doesn’t mean it’s terrible. I grade on the curve. Absolutes don’t exist.

Ready? Let’s jump into the fire, starting the New Year off with both a bang and a whimper.

Best, no. 1: The Vermont Country Store

I’m looking through a 96-page Vermont Country Store catalog, and I haven’t found one defective headline. That’s an achievement in itself. But add to that superlative, benefit-laden descriptions and you have a catalog whose copywriters (I assume the catalog has more than one) understand both corporate philosophy and image and the art of effective salesmanship.

Many of the items in this catalog have a nostalgia tie, such as Lifebuoy Soap, Cuticura Ointment, or 1940s-vintage “Whistling Teapot” Towels, and copy exploits that tie very well indeed. Warmth and credibility are a rare combination in the cynical and skeptical 21st century.

One negative: Style calls for initial caps. Nothing much I can do about that. Oh, well, share a few sample descriptions (first few words only):

Old-Fashioned Meringue Cookies, as Light as Air

Our meringue cookies melt away in your mouth without weighing on your conscience….

Another:

Give Worn Furniture a Great Look with a Chenille Throw

And, furniture doesn’t necessarily have to be worn-looking to use this throw. It’s great protection against pets who call your furniture their own….

Bonus: The Vermont Country Store gives geezers like me a reunion with products we thought had gone forever to that Great Catalog in the Sky.

Best, no. 2: Deutsche Optik

I bought a wristwatch from this company, and it quit running. But that doesn’t reflect on the exceptional quality of its copy.

Deutsche Optik sounds German, but it’s totally American in its copy except for headings, which are Spartan and no-nonsense.

What qualifies Deutsche Optik for the top five are nuggets that somehow build sales appeal into fact. An example, from a description of binoculars:

After much coaching, we finally convinced what’s left of the original Carl Zeiss-Jena factory to look around and see if there might be parts enough for one final EDF production run. They did, there were, and here they are….

See how the combination of credibility and apparent rarity adds up to a “I’d better get one of these” reaction?

One more, for a Miniature Field Tripod, whatever that is:

There are a lot of little tripods out there, and, frankly, most of them are crap. Not this one, however….

How many catalogs would have the courage or chutzpah to use the word “crap”? (Note to the writer: For verbalized copy, “but” is better than “however.”)

Best, No. 3: TravelSmith

Here’s a catalog whose copy parallels a knowledgeable but never pompous salesperson delivering a one-to-one, arm-around-the-shoulder pitch. TravelSmith seems to know its target customers very well. Those readers may or may not be sophisticated travelers; what matters is the copywriter’s clever way of treating them as if they were.

Headlines are benefit-oriented, and many items have both a headline and a subhead. A sample of the perfect combination of headline, subhead, and first lines of body copy:

(headline) Don’t Fight These Wrinkles — Flaunt Them!

(subhead) Crinkle Crepe’s Permanent Pleats Won’t Sag, Bag, or Wash Out

(first sentence) This crinkle-pleated dress has the grace of a Roman toga and the ingenuity of Japanese origami.

Note the sales appeal built into this depiction of a pair of jeans:

New! Out-to-Dinner Denims

The Smartest Denim Ideas in a Decade

No need to ditch the denims just because you’re dining out. When your regular jeans won’t cut it, wear these….

See the sales benefit of using the vernacular? “ditch the denims” and “won’t cut it” are solid communication.

Best, no. 4: Kitchen Collection

One problem I have in evaluating catalogs is the distributional differential between printed catalogs and online catalogs. A printed catalog comes to me, but I have to go fishing for online catalogs unless a clever e-mail entices me to a Website.

So it was just dumb luck that led me to Kitchen Collection (www.kitchencollection.com.) As is true of many online catalogs, most descriptions are (necessarily) short and limited to fact. Here’s one that transcends the medium. I’ll repeat the entire copy block:

This IS Your Grandma’s Cookware

Flaky fish fillets crackle in the skillet. Catch a whiff of the coffee brewing. The cornbread is fluffy and lightly browned. The perfect meal at the end of the perfect outdoor day. For over 100 years folks who know cooking have cooked luscious meals out- and indoors using cast iron cookware. Grandma knew that cast iron heats evenly and retains heat better than any other metal. It’s even the original non-stick. And if you look on the bottom of Grandma’s skillet, chances are it’s a Lodge, the name for cast iron since 1896.

Below this generic is a group of cast-iron items. Imagine how much less salesworthy they’d have been without this introduction.

Best, no. 5: City Spirit

I state firmly that although I admire smart women’s fashions I’ve never worn any. I’m told, though, by those who do that City Spirit avoids the too-common problem of fashion copy — the “I’ve seen this many times before” reaction and/or a forced, phony archness.

Mundane items benefit from a fresh approach. Copy is brief but never rushed. Here’s the entire description of a shirt:

Stretch Wrap Shirt

Shirt chic gives a little in pure stretch cotton that wraps, then perfectly ties in back. Turned-back cuffs finish off the 3/4 sleeves with flair. Imported. Cotton/spandex. Washable. French blue, white, oregano or berry red. 2-18.

Think it’s easy? Then could you match “Shirt chic”? Let’s look at another one:

Ornate Fringed Belt

Fabulously embellished belts run circles around the best-dressed this autumn. Antique-brass finish, scrollwork metal with faceted jewel accents in your choice of brick or onyx. Finished with leather fringe. Italy. Completely adjustable, 48″ length ties at your waist or hips.

Clarity and imagination within an economy of words lifts City Spirit above the average. Grabbers such as “Icy blue and black shades get warmed by the texture of smooth stretch velvet” verify that superior copy is no accident.

That part was easy. Time to make some fresh enemies by pointing a bony finger at the bottom five. I’ll try to justify my choices of the five worst.

Worst, no. 1: Brushstrokes

What infuriates me about this catalog of “original art” (apparently these are dimensional touched-up reproductions labeled “Artist Enhanced”) is the totally pedestrian copy. Any romance, any pre-appreciation of the art as art drowns in a swamp of dead words. One wonders whether the copywriter has even a primitive knowledge of what he or she is selling.

Some of the strange first sentences:

For an Edgar Degas: “No matter how enchanted we are by colors of his oils and pastels, the essence of the art of Degas is his drawing.”

For a Claude Monet: “Venice has several residences which bear the name of the Contarini family.”

For a Paul Cézanne: “Cézanne is referred to as the father of abstract art — growing out of Impressionism.”

For an Abbott Fuller Graves: “Graves’ utmost respect and admiration was held by nature and its floral beauty.”

Your Honors, the prosecution rests.

Worst, no. 2: Monterey Bay

If I’m writing copy for an esoteric area of business, I can assume — although sometimes unwisely — that most readers understand “in terms” I toss in to prove I’m one of them.

In a consumer catalog, such an assumption can be not only unwise but deadly. This catalog tosses terms such as “Intarsia” and “marled” and “black yoke” and “fashion-contrast,” all unexplained. (Yeah, I know intarsia is wood inlay, but what the devil does that have to do with garments?)

Some of the copy seems half-finished. For example, a pair of earrings has as its heading “A Silversmith Earrings.” Is a word missing there? Then the first sentence:

“Sterling silver, natural stones, and artisan come together in a dance of perfection to form these door-knocker style post earrings.”

Writer, if you’re including “artisan” without a descriptive adjective, then “come together” detracts from clarity rather than enhancing it.

One gets the feeling of mix-and-match copy lines. We think we should understand them but don’t quite get them: “Individuality has its perks.”…“Wander the path that borders the wood to view the season in all its splendor.”…“Scour tiny shops seeking lush pillows and accents that speak of a quieter life.”

Obscure poetry has its place, I suppose. Not in a general catalog, please.

Worst, no. 3: CDW Advantage

In print and on the Web, this one is frustrating. The printed catalog offers a free gift…but only “for first time customers.” What CRM expert figured in that decision? Then, compounding the felony, some of the descriptions for its computers omit crucial information. Here’s a Compaq Evo Notebook N600c. What’s the screen size? Copy doesn’t tell us. How much is that same notebook? “Starting at $2099.78.” What does “Starting” mean? No help here. How big is the hard drive? No help here either.

Assuming the screen size and hard drive are tied to the “Starting at,” the reader needs a reference, but none seems to exist. Would you buy a computer without knowing screen size or hard drive capacity?

Worst, no. 4: HomeVisions (Capital One®)

A president’s letter might have added some clarity to this catalog, which is reasonably well produced, full bleed, and workmanlike in most of its mechanics.

Finding objects within a multi-item photograph isn’t always easy, and the copy here doesn’t give much assistance. One example is a Berringer Painting, described as “An exuberant expression of fanciful French style.” Well, okay, except it isn’t there. The only item on the wall seems to be a tapestry. (I say “seems to be” because only the bottom half is visible.) It’s so bland only a prisoner could call it “exuberant.”

The writer describes the Tuscan Collection as “European-influenced accent pieces.” Well, sort of. But no cigar. For a Floral Lattice Collection, we have a mixed image: “High fashion and high function, this sturdy, all-metal collection brings stylish storage to bedroom and bath.”

Worst, no. 5: Masseys Auditions

I don’t understand this shoe catalog. It isn’t terrible, but it certainly is puzzling. I list it here only because one gets the feeling the copywriter and the layout people never communicated with each other.

No president’s letter, but little notes point out that photographs were achieved in various Arizona locations. Why?

One note says, “Burton Barr Central Library is inspired by the beauty of Monument Valley.” Oh? Then why does the photograph show just a cubicle? Another refers to the Arizona Biltmore Hotel as “the only existing hotel in the world with a Frank Lloyd Wright-influenced design.” We don’t see the hotel. And that word “influenced” is peculiar, since many contemporary hotels could claim a Frank Lloyd Wright influence.

On it goes, with a photograph that could have been produced anywhere accompanied by a little squib glorifying the Radisson Poco Diablo Resort. An interior shot of a model sitting in an easy chair pitches the Wrigley Mansion, so we have to take their word for it.

Some descriptions are well constructed: “When the sun shines, it’s huarache time….” Others aren’t: “Well thought out sandal.” Ah, so it goes.

And that’s the batch for this year

If your catalog has brilliant copy and I missed it, a loose apology. If your catalog has miserable copy and I missed it, an even looser apology. My standard explanation is well known to Catalog Age readers: I base my judgments on copy, and I’m not the most dispassionate commentator.

Hang in there, because assuming both of us still are around we’ll have another diatribe next January.


Herschell Gordon Lewis is the principal of Lewis Enterprises, Fort Lauderdale, FL. Author of 26 books, including Catalog Copy That Sizzles, Marketing Mayhem, and Effective E-Mail Marketing, he writes copy for and consults with clients worldwide.