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

Jan 01, 2004 10:30 PM  By

This job gets tougher every year. Back in ancient times — the early to mid-1990s will do — finding catalogs with subpar copy meant sorting through a stack collected over the previous nine or ten months and picking those with the most egregiously underwritten or nondescriptive copy. The Web has wised up so many catalogers (the ones who want to stay in business) that deadly copy is reaching extinction. In fact, one of this year’s five best is the Web version of a catalog.

So this year, the five “worst” really are the five “least effective.” Oh, their copy isn’t on a par with the great ones, but had these been evaluated in the 1990s, they’d have wound up in the middle of the stack.

Before we continue, three disclaimers: First, I’m judging these solely on copy. Wonderful photographs? Not germane. Heavy enamel paper, fine production? Not pertinent. We’re talking copy here. Second, these are my opinions, not those of the editors of Catalog Age or any group of judges. And third, my next column will focus on business catalogs, so this one is strictly consumer.

Close, but no cigar

Some catalogs are worthy of mention because they’re in the “excellent” stack but didn’t make the first five. For example, Luminescence. This catalog of beauty aids actually clarifies what its products do for the skin (or elsewhere). The writers, or whoever guides them, are aware of the natural skepticism of women who have been exposed to such promises before…and takes dramatic steps to eliminate that skepticism.

Premier Editions is an exquisitely written catalog of artistic gifts. The subtitle is “Uno Alla Volta,” which means “One at a Time.” Copy is, if anything, hyperliterate (“The words of poets to describe the art of hand-blown glass, the ‘dance of glass,’ is choreographed by talent and years of experience, against a backdrop of roaring furnaces…”

Design Within Reach reaches out very well. Here is ultramodern furniture in a catalog whose layout won’t win any awards but whose copy matches the catalog’s market. An example: “Having designed everything from flexible glass shelving units to bottle openers for Alessi, Biagio Cisotti is well versed in creating personality-rich modern designs.…”

Herrington is always a pleasure to read. It calls itself “The Enthusiasts’ Catalog,” and it follows through on that promise. Descriptions are appealing and, even better, good-natured.

A.G. Russell’s slim-jim catalog has been around forever, but many in our business don’t even know about the company’s superbly written catalog dedicated almost exclusively to…knives. Yes, knives. Here are hunting knives, pocket knives, folding knives, kitchen knives, even collectible knives. The outsider may find the concept terrifying, but the copy gourmet has a treat in store. Here is the beginning of the description of the Loveless City Knife:

When Lone Wolf Knives wanted a gentleman’s pocketknife, they asked the dean of knife design to design it for them. R.W. “Bob” Loveless has held the commanding position as the world’s premier knife designer since he burst onto the scene in 1968. Bob designed…

If variations of the word “design” hadn’t been used to death, this catalog would have been one of the top five.

Similar reasoning holds true for Improvements. This is one terrific catalog. But when I read, for a bath mat, “Lay back and relax,” I had to back away one step.

Now for those top five:

Best, No. 1: Restoration Hardware

I don’t know who writes the copy in this catalog, but whoever it is, I salute you. This copywriter is a true wordsmith, someone who understands the difference between words that generate a mood and words that just describe.

An example of this talent, for the Marston Cherry Office Collection:

This is a desk fit for issuers of proclamations and pronouncements, for authors of great American novels and epic To-Do lists. Its broad top, finished to a high luster.…

Yeah. Send it.

Best, No. 2: Magellans.com

This is more than a Website. It’s an encyclopedia that helps the traveler know what the currency is in Lithuania, what visas you might need or not need for many countries, what to pack and how to pack it, all written in bright and understandable language.

That brightness shines through the easy-to-navigate Website. Typical is the description of an unusual item, 1st Class Sleeper:

Veteran commercial pilot Captain Bob Duncan couldn’t sleep in airplane seats on his commutes home, so he invented the ingenious 1st Class Sleeper, an inflatable “bed in the clouds” that’s endorsed by chiropractors and orthopedic surgeons. Just place it against the back of your plane seat, inflate with 10-12 quick breaths, then lie back and relax. Your neck, shoulders and spine will be kept in perfect alignment, eliminating stiffness and pain, even on the longest flights, so you’ll arrive at your destination perfectly rested! May also be folded in half and used as a lumbar pillow.…

Yeah. I want one.

Best, No. 3: Techno-Scout

Joe Sugarman lives! If you remember and enjoyed his sprightly copy of the 1970s and 1980s, you’ll recognize the style in Techno-Scout. Every description is fascinating reading. The headings are “grabbers.” An example is the heading and first sentences of a copy block for “The natural lighting lamp that does everything except your work”:

This is no mere desk lamp — it’s the choice of busy professionals looking to simplify their lives. With a hidden dataport in its stand that boasts two electrical outlets, and a phone jack, it’s perfect for hooking up additional laptops, or appliances that you may use on your desktop.…

Yeah. Light me up, Scotty.

Best, No. 4: Frontgate

Frontgate knows the difference between benefit and feature as well as any catalog, and better than most. Headlines are so clearly benefit-laden the reader feels guilty for bypassing items he or she would never have wanted in the first place. An example is this heading: “Bring a refreshing breeze to your patio with the same commercial-quality cooler used by professional athletes during the game.”

For some reason, Frontgate doesn’t use periods at the end of headlines, but note how it avoids the Initial Cap trap. A heading for a rolling garage seat: “Sit, swivel, and roll.” For an automatic bill counter: “Counts 1,000 bills per minute (bills not included).”

Yeah. You get the idea.

Best, No. 5: Doctors Foster & Smith

Here we have far more than a catalog. We have a friendly, concerned group of veterinarians who truly care about our pets and our budget.

That’s the image this catalog projects, and it does so with style. There’s nothing tricky here, and that’s a plus because these marketers know pet owners want to trust any source, whether it’s the local vet or a cataloger. The catalog is shot through with useful tips such as “Separation anxiety — solutions for your pet” and “Pet ramps — helping pets and owners alike.” The tips, quite logically, are tied to product offers.

Yeah. Nice job.

Now for the tougher decisions.

Worst, No. 1: Basil Street Gallery

What impels a catalog skimmer to stop, look, and order? Catalogs selling art face a challenge transcending the ability to describe; they have to be able to generate salivation. So this description of an Andrew Wyeth print just doesn’t hack it: “With relatively restrained colors, Wyeth presents us with this familiar vision of Americana with just a slight suggestion of mood…” Yawn.

Worst, No. 2: Guild.com

I had uneasy vibes when, inside the cover, I read this display type: “Living with art at home creates a world uniquely your own.” That unease intensified as I browsed through the pages of this beautifully produced catalog and encountered copy blocks such as, “Ceramics is all about clay. Earth’s primal substance born of igneous rock from volcanic eruptions that created the planet…” Well, that’s a revelation! The catalog isn’t bad. It just misses opportunity after opportunity to excite the buying impulse.

Worst, No. 3: Gregory’s Groves

It’s almost traitorous of me to attack a catalog of citrus-related goodies, but this one asks for it. This begins the description of a Dockside Orange Bundt Cake: “Refreshing as a glass of fresh-squeezed Florida orange juice! Made with genuine juice from grove-ripened oranges, each slice is light and citrusy.…” Genuine juice? Come on.

Worst, No. 4: Dean & Deluca

Here’s where I get jumped on, because I’m including in the negative list a marketing icon. In fact, I’m their ongoing customer. What’s happened here is my inevitable conclusion that this catalog says, “You know who we are. These are our prices, and we don’t have to justify them.” And they don’t justify them. They just state them, a patrician approach that works only on the predisposed. A bottle of olive oil is as much as $40. Balsamic vinegar is $180. Please, guys, help us justify spending that kind of money.

Worst, No. 5: Shannon

I love Ireland and things Irish. In fact, I’ve booked a bicycle tour in Ireland for June. But if I’m expected to buy something from a catalog, I need more of an incentive than, as total description, “Your favorite anniversary, wedding or special occasion 5″×7″ photo will be properly framed in Lismore 50th Anniversary frame” or “For wedding, anniversary, even birthday cakes, this 12-3/4″ cake knife is an ideal wedding gift.” Faith and begorrah, give me a little more blarney.

And that’s it for this year. Whew. In the March issue, we’ll take a look at some b-to-b catalogs. I’ll warn you in advance: We gauge these with a different set of criteria.


Herschell Gordon Lewis is the principal of Lewis Enterprises, Fort Lauderdale, FL, and the author of 27 books, including Catalog Copy That Sizzles, Marketing Mayhem, and Effective E-Mail Marketing.