Cool description or enthusiasm?

Oct 01, 1998 9:30 PM  By

Assuming your database is reasonably accurate, you also can assume that the people to whom you send your catalog-be it consumer or business-are getting that catalog because they have not only the ability to buy what you’re selling but also a preset affinity. n So the catalog’s image may determine the amount of enthusiasm you can inject into the copy. Too little, and motivation isn’t there; too much, and the description seems frantic. Deciding how much force to insert is part of the “image” decision. A general rule: The more upscale the image, the less forceful the copy. Another general rule: Copy should reflect what you might encounter if this were a retail store and the catalog copy were a retail salesperson.

What do your customers expect? Tiffany customers and would-be customers expect understatement and would be uneasy if the catalog reflected a suggestion that whatever is in its pages might represent a departure from a comfortable upscale norm. So an exclamation point would be not only out of character but also damaging to that carefully nurtured image.

Catalogs such as Tiffany may fear loss of image if they “sell.” Here’s the complete description of a crystal platter:

Tiffany “Hearts” platter in full lead crystal, 12″ diameter, $70.

Under the group heading “Paloma Picasso designs”:

Amethyst ring in 18k gold, $1,700.

A catalog titled The Art of Giving from the New York showroom of Asprey London projects a super-Tiffany image, with assumptive, austere copy emphasizing high price. Example:

Perfume Atomizer

Diamond set 18k gold and faceted citrine with citrine and onyx tassel $19, 000

Then there’s American Express. What do its cardholders expect? The headline on the inside cover sets the proper AmEx mood:

The values are even better when you take advantage of monthly payments with no interest.

So each jewelry item in this catalog is dual-priced, with the per-month time payment preceding the single-payment price. While it eschews exclamation points, it moves up the promotional ladder with offers beyond those of Tiffany or Asprey:

Give a ring that’s ready to wear…

We’ll size it perfectly…for free.

“For” free? That’s a bit downscale, an unexpected jar.

A different level of persuasion The same customer who might recoil at promotional copy in a hoity-toity jewelry catalog would be puzzled if a catalog featuring less extravagant jewelry didn’t try to sell. So The Windsor Collection, whose cover says “Everyday Low Prices!”, promotes a set of 12 chains layered in 14k gold or sterling silver with a bold sunburst: “$9.95 each!” And so it should be.

A competitor, Crown Galleries, takes a more competitive posture. The cover displays merchandise and has this heading:

Beautiful Sterling Silver Omega Chains!

Proof of the promotional approach is the first descriptive sentence under that heading:

A new addition to our extensive chain line, these Omegas give a versatile look that can be worn with any outfit!

You can see that this exclamation really isn’t an exclamation. The artifice sets a mood that persists throughout the catalog, in which each headline ends with an exclamation point.

The potent “At last!” factor I like the phrase “At last!”-yes, complete with exclamation point. It’s pure child psychology, suggesting a breakthrough in an area the reader has been waiting for.

A catalog called Diamond Essence has this main heading on its inside cover:

At last! American scientists have created the perfect alternative to mined diamonds.

Note the careful structure: The sentence following “At last!” doesn’t end with an exclamation point. The intention, apparently, is to generate excitement without becoming shrill.

Away from the jewelry universe, one of my favorite “At last!” experts is Lee Herrington. I don’t know the major domo of the Herrington catalog personally, but for years I’ve admired his ability (or that of whoever writes his copy) to generate a desire to buy something for which the reader hadn’t the slightest hankering prior to reading the description. The technique, used by many and mastered by few, is the creation of headlines structured not around what the product will do but what it will do for you.

My wife and I are scuba divers, and we’ve seen “dry snorkels” advertised here and there. But only after reading a description of this snorkel in the Herrington catalog have we considered buying a couple. Why? Because the copy doesn’t just describe the snorkel; the copy sells it:

At Last, a Dry Snorkel That Puts Air in Your Lungs, Never Water!

Whether fooling around in the local lake, or doing serious snorkeling down at Trunk Bay, St. John, most of us have experienced the shock of a sudden mouthful of water-and the disgusting taste if it’s salt water! Even a slight surface chop sends water pouring down the barrel of ordinary snorkels, right into your mouth.

Okay, Lee, ship me a couple.

We might introduce the abstruse critique about the difference between “At last” and “Finally.” Opinion: I usually prefer the more timely “At last.” But you can’t fill a catalog with “At last” unless the catalog itself is titled “At last!” Still, “Finally” isn’t the only alternative, not with “It’s about time” and “Why didn’t somebody invent this before?” and a dozen others hanging around.

Strictly for rhetorical purists, the difference between “At last” and “Finally”: “At last” has more pep than “Finally.” Why? Because “At last” implies a beginning. It hasn’t happened before. “Finally” implies an ending, something you’ve been waiting for. It’s the end of an era. Yes, the reader (or for that matter, the listener) will know what you mean, whichever word you use, but we’re discussing maximized power, not comprehension.

With that semi-obscure explanation, note these headlines from the same book (numerals are mine):

1) At Last You Can Enjoy the Flat-Out Fun of Wind, Water and Sun, Without the Technical Mumbo-Jumbo That Makes Sailing Seem Like a Private Club!

2) Finally, a Portable Compressor That Inflates the Huge Tires on Sport Utility Vehicles in Just Minutes.

3) Finally – a Clean Way to Carry Your Golf Shoes, and More, to the Course!

4) Finally I Find a Putter That’s Better At Sinking Putts!

5) Finally, a Booklight for Serious Readers Lets You Read Without Eyestrain, and Without Waking Your Spouse.

6) From Switzerland, I Finally Get a Rugged, Casual Watch in My Favorite Color! Free Knife!

Well, you get the idea. That last entry is a genuine 100% authentic “Finally” use. (And yes, if it were my catalog I wouldn’t impede reading speed and comprehension by using both caps and lowercase.) But whether or not you even accept the difference between “At last” and “Finally,” you have to react to the energy of these headlines.

I don’t think we’d have a better or worse world if everybody exclaimed. Oh, sure, ending every headline in a catalog with an exclamation point is defaulting substance to form.

On the other hand, it probably isn’t possible to overexcite a casual catalog reader…unless that reader is delving into the Tiffany catalog, where an exclamation point might provoke cardiac arrest.