Creating the instant impulse to buy

Aug 01, 1998 9:30 PM  By

If you had your druthers, would you rather sell or describe? n Careful, now. Before any “of course” knee-jerk response, consider: We’re in the catalog business. The same professional copywriter who piles every selling adjective he/she can muster into a solo mailing will ease up and put a silk glove on copy for a catalog. The two selling media aren’t parallel. n But what is parallel is the adjective before “media”-selling. A catalog succeeds not if it wins a bunch of awards for artistry but if somebody, reading it, sends in an order. (Witness the ever-professional Vermont Country Store, which seems refreshing not only because of its no-b.s. copy but also because it’s printed in monochrome on newsprint.)

You don’t need high pressure to sell Every now and then I come across a catalog whose copy approaches the poetic, bright and shining and thoughtful and graceful. Ever have the good fortune to look through A Common Reader, a digest-size catalog-and yes, except for the cover it’s black-and-white on newsprint-issued by James Mustich Jr.?

I don’t know Mr. Mustich, but I suspect he’s a gentle soul who loves books. That’s what his catalog sells-books. The copy doesn’t pitch. It’s quiet, never shrill. For instance, in describing a book about Darwinism:

It’s an absolutely enthralling exposition of Darwin’s theory of natural selection, charting the workings of that theory through the eons as life on earth evolved and ramified into the baroque extravaganza we see about us.

Each book is awarded one long paragraph of text-I’d guess 100-150 words-in 8-point type. You can see how many of our standard rules A Common Reader violates: single, unbroken paragraphs, plus type far smaller than we’d ever allocate to a catalog catering to “mature” targets. So what? The miracle of this copy is that as we share his enjoyment of a book, the buying impulse rises up in us. Now, that’s professional catalog copywriting.

So yes, it’s possible for catalog copy to create the instant impulse to buy; I don’t know why more catalogs don’t lean in that direction.

Why not suggest use? I’m looking at similar items in two catalogs-home intercom systems. The headline on one:

Wireless Home Intercom System

The headline on the other:

No more yelling! Simply plug in these Wireless Intercoms and talk.

Oh, sure, the second one has more words. But I’d give up a line or two of body text in favor of a headline that generates the buying impulse. (In answer to your obvious question, yes, I too would replace “Simply” with “Just.”)

Here’s another headline that replaces bland description with a buying-impulse breeder:

Chair protector takes the stress out of mealtimes with kids.

Can’t you see a typical wage-slave copywriter missing an opportunity by grinding out “Protect your chair cushion with this heavy-duty vinyl cover”? Can’t you see a jaded cataloger putting an okay on such a heading because the creative atmosphere is one of clerkdom, not salesdom?

Tell ‘em what to do One of the Great Laws of force communication is “Tell the reader/viewer/listener what to do.” And it’s the easiest of all the Great Laws to implement, because we couldn’t have reached adulthood if we didn’t have a ton of experience both in telling people what to do and in being told what to do. We know what the signals are.

Combine that Great Law with benefit and you have an automatic impulse-generator. Guaranteed. Can’t miss.

Here’s an inflatable neck pillow. We’ve seen it for years, usually described as “Inflatable Neck Pillow.” Now comes a newcomer to the arena, with this headline:

Say “bon voyage” to cricks and stiff necks when you travel!

Here’s a long-handled bulb changer. One catalog shows it in use, with this headline:

Change ceiling bulbs without a ladder.

No, it isn’t terrible, and it’s light-years better than “Long-handled bulb changer,” but it isn’t even close to being in the same league with this one:

Change overhead bulbs and floods with both feet safely on the floor

So how would YOU have written it?

Here we have an office chair. The heading:

After Many Years, Still a Popular Seating Choice

Okay, what would you have done with that? I’ll bet three bucks if somebody handed the copy to you and asked you to give it some octane, at the very least you’d have added a couple of words, if only the reason for the chair’s popularity, in front of a flavorless headline that can repel as many as it attracts.

Worst foot forward? A catalog I usually admire has this heading for that facial resistance gadget we’ve seen advertised everywhere:

Uncontrolled clinical tests show Facial Flex can tone and firm your face in just 8 weeks, with no drugs, no surgery Uncontrolled? All right, let’s assume they can’t claim a controlled test because…well, because it’s their own self-serving test. Do they have to emphasize the wildness of the claim? How would you have handled the statement?

First of all, I’d have put a period at the end, because it’s a complete sentence. Next, I’d have used “Our tests,” or if the legal department raised its hackles, “If Facial Flex doesn’t tone and firm your face in just 8 weeks, we’ll refund every cent you paid for it,” or for an easy solution, a transformation into a question such as “Will Facial Flex tone and firm your face in just 8 weeks? We have lots of evidence that says it will.” Brilliant copy? You know better than that. But it’s infinitely superior to hoping the reader won’t read “uncontrolled” the way we just have.

Starting from ground zero One of the jewels of our business is a catalog called Art & Artifact. One reason I like this catalog is its ability to treat highbrow items with grace and clarity. Most of its headlines are at variance with all we’ve just been reading about, but to object to an understated position of culture would be objecting to elegance itself.

At what point does an understated position of culture, indicative of supreme elegance, lift itself outside the buying realm? It’s a genuine problem for catalogs whose list selection has to be an exquisite match.

Let’s suppose-and it’s a totally valid supposition-you have no preconceived desire to buy a tapestry. You chance upon this description (I’m quoting only the opening, and the misspelling of “lilies” in the headline is Art & Artifact’s):

WATER LILLIES TAPESTRY First your eyes, then your soul will be irretrievably drawn into our stunning tapestry replicating a Monet canvas of water lilies with a Japanese footbridge….

Would this spur you to lift the phone? Probably not. But it might well spur you to take a closer look at the illustration.

In the same catalog is a different, more pedestrian call to action:

PORTOFINO TAPESTRY Give your room a view with our captivating tapestry portraying the sunwashed village of Portofino….

In this instance, the suggestion of a tapestry as substitute for a window might well be a buying spur.

For b-to-b: even more significance Suggestion of use becomes a profound selling instrument in a business-to-business ambience.

Here, on the same page of Hello Direct (always a bellwether of superior copy), are two telephone headsets. Each headline solves a specific problem. Headline “A”:

So much noise you can’t hear your caller? This headset covers both ears.

Headline “B”: Don’t want anything on top of your head? Try this on-the-ear headset.

The technique is impeccable: Each headline suggests both problem and solution.

And that’s key to creating the instant buying impulse. Let the academic researchers state a problem without offering a solution. Stating a problem and then offering a solution without giving the reader time to look elsewhere? That’s high professionalism in catalog copy.

And that’s what our mission is, right?