Grading on a curve

THE TREND CONTINUES Whether the murderous and ruthless competitive nature of the 21st-century catalog industry has culled the ranks or a higher level of professionalism has raised overall standards, it’s tougher and tougher to find any catalogs that qualify for the pure word “worst.” So we have to grade on the curve. “Worst” is comparative, not absolute. If your catalog appears in the bottom half of this highly (or lowly) opinionated list, don’t stick pins in a doll with my nail parings attached. You’re just the victim of my personal prejudices. Too, we’re discussing copy only. Some of my choices for excellence never would win an award for art direction. And some of the losers are pictorially resplendent, deficient only on a comparative basis for word use. The usual disclaimer: Unquestionably some superb catalogs exist outside the availability of my own mailbox or online quests. I inspect batches, but obviously additional batches exist.

Best #1


Who can glamorize a flour sack?
Williams-Sonoma, that’s who:

Our grandmothers cut up empty flour sacks and used the absorbent pure-cotton material for everything from drying pots to wrapping the Thanksgiving turkey. Flour sacks are hard to find now, but the towels are still in demand. Made from the same strong plain-woven cloth as the originals, these extra-large towels have uses far beyond the kitchen.

Specificity adds confidence, a major benefit in an era of consumer distrust. What’s more prosaic than a shelf liner? Williams-Sonoma strokes it…and us:

Our striped liner creates a soft layer of cushioning on shelves — the best possible surface for fine dinnerware and glassware. It’s made of a flexible PVC-covered fabric that lies flat without curling, and the smooth surface wipes clean with a damp cloth. Nonslip backing holds it firmly in place without the use of adhesive. The roll cuts easily with scissors to custom-fit shelves and drawers. 8-ft.-long roll, 20″ wide….

Sidebars describe and add justification to every category. Any questions? That’s the key. We have confidence in this book because the copy isn’t artificially clever.

Best #2

J. Peterman

This has to be the comeback of the century. Here is the resuscitated Peterman catalog, with its irreverent, literate, and entertaining copy intact. I have no inside information about the return-ratio of garments shown as loose drawings rather than photo-realistic representations. But who can quarrel with the brightness of descriptive imagery such as this, for an unlikely item:

A beret is probably the most universal hat of our time: worn by jazz oboists, by commandos, by torch singers.

Worn by Hemingway running the bulls. Worn by Jean-Paul Sartre contemplating existence, or only another café au lait. Worn by Che Guevara, Tyrone Power, Groucho Marx.

By the Guardian Angels in New York City, protecting citizens on subways from the encroaching jungle.

Authentic Basque Beret (No. 1539). Water-resistant Black wool, with Brown leather band. Made in France. You should have one around. It will grow on you.

Product specifics are relegated to the last paragraph, not exposed until the mood has been set. That’s brave writing.

Best #3

Lands’ End

Terrific copy is standard throughout this catalog, and we’re not surprised. In fact, we’d be surprised to discover a Lands’ End catalog that didn’t have terrific copy. As close to perfect as one could create is this heading for a description of men’s pants — oh, well, all right, trousers:

Wrinkle-resist Twills wear like iron (and you won’t need one).

Having seized the reader, the description continues at a torrid page. Just the first few sentences:

These dress pants exit the washer ready to wear — including the handsome preset crease running down each leg. So skip the cleaners, and consider ironing optional. You’ll enjoy all the enhancements of our wool trousers feature: deep, offset pockets, a comfortable waistband that fits your middle better, and button-through back pockets….

Sold. Send me charcoal, 36 long, please.

Best #4

Dr. Leonard’s

Schlocky? Absolutely. Always gives a reason to buy? Absolutely. The combination is classic salesmanship? Absolutely.

Dr. Leonard’s isn’t about to win any art directors’ awards, and I suspect that the marketing geniuses behind this catalog want to keep it that way. Here we have an old-fashioned catalog that’s not only comfortable to read (compare it with so many catalogs that defy reading comfort) but also generates the buying impulse by supplying straightforward and clear reasons to buy.

Yes, some copy is a bit over the top. We have “The Most Comfortable Slippers In The World!!” (a double “ugh” for initial caps and two exclamation points) and, for men, “Here are the world’s most comfortable shoes” and “The world’s most comfortable briefs” and, on another page, for women, “Here are the world’s most comfortable shoes.” But so what? Skimming through the catalog, one becomes a believer:

Here are the world’s most comfortable shoes. They are specially designed with soft, breathable, nylon knit uppers that stretch to fit comfortably around your feet — no matter what shape your feet are in. Great for people who suffer from swollen feet, painful bunions, corns or crooked toes….

A bonus: Just about every headline makes a promise.

Best #5


I feel like a traitor, admiring Nike’s Web catalog, because this company obviously has such huge creative resources it can dwarf any “production” by any competitor. But I have to admire, as you’ll admire if you head for that site, the ease, speed, completeness, specificity, and navigability, augmented by terse, to-the-point copy.

I wanted to see what Nike has to say about its new line of Shox athletic shoes. Getting to them is a snap: There they are. Some descriptions are on the “arch” side — turn-off headlines such as:


But then we have a no-nonsense description:

The Nike Shox 2.40. A lower-profile shoe with six Nike Shox columns. Combines responsiveness with Nike air cushioning for a superior ride. Lightweight and perfect for marathoners. Definitely a little unconventional. But after 26.2 grueling miles, it doesn’t matter what your shoe looks like. Just that it works.

Now, hold it. If that headline is sophomoric, why is Nike in this distinguished listing? Because Nike aims its copy, just as it aims its layouts, at its prime targets. And those of us who superciliously snort at the heading just ain’t part of that group.

So much for the best ones. Now for the tough part — choosing five that don’t have the cachet, selling power, or inventiveness. As a disclaimer, it’s the result of grading on the curve. These catalogs don’t need applause from me to survive or, for that matter, prosper. That isn’t the criterion in a tough competitive marketplace. Rather, the criterion is recognition that words can penetrate reader apathy or bounce off harmlessly. So with bullet-deflecting armor in place, here goes. But note: This is doubly tough because I like the concepts of some of these. For example, there’s much to like about…

Worst #1


Damn. This is a triple-A source of fine chocolates and other treats. One wants to swallow the photos, they’re that good. But copy is pedestrian. For example, here is the total description of Peanut Butter Meltaways:

If you like peanut butter and chocolate, you’ll crave Seroogy’s assortment of Peanut Butter and Peanut Butter Crisp Meltaways.

The complete description for a Fudge Sampler:

Seroogy’s uses real butter to make real fudge for delivery to you. The trio includes generous servings of our ever-popular chocolate walnut, maple walnut and peanut butter fudges.

See what I mean? It’s just not quite there.

Worst #2


I’m bothered by the arrogance of this catalog, which sets its name on the cover in eight-point type. And I’m bothered by the spread on pages 2-3, which has this grammatical glitch:

When they write my memoirs, they’ll find I’m really no different than most people. Dreams, disappointments, and a few crystal clear moments of grace.

The photographs are startlingly attractive. The copy is an afterthought. Example of a complete description:

Kimono sweater with oversized dolman sleeves and a removable tassel tie. Nylon, angora, wool. Dry clean. Brown.

That might work in a different ambience. I opine it doesn’t work here.

Worst #3

The Guild

“The Guild” may not be the correct name for this catalog, because some of the internal textual references call it “The artful home.” I find this catalog puzzling because the copy seems to mirror what one would see on a small card adjacent to a work of art displayed in a gallery. This doesn’t work in a catalog, because gallery visitors have a preknowledge, and the assumption that a catalog recipient is preconditioned is somewhat smug.

Here, for example, is the entire description of two sculptures, shown in a tableau that makes identifying them unnecessarily difficult:

We’re delighted to offer two striking limited-edition ceramic sculptures by Steve Gardner this fall. One of THE GUILD’s most popular artists, Gardner’s terracotta sculptures tell enigmatic tales. “Behind all of my imagery is a legend or myth which I create along with the work; the story and the sculpture develop together.

Oh. Thanks for clearing that up. It seems the copywriter is as enigmatic as the sculptor.

Worst #4

Maryland Square

The reader of this shoe catalog can empathize with the copywriter, struggling to create salesworthy descriptions. But empathy and enthusiasm are on different planets. Yes, some copy transmits a mood. But much of it is on this level:

There’s a definite buzz in the air about Naturalizer’s new tailored leather loafer. It’s hard to keep this one on the shelves. Popular for casual or career wear. Interesting vamp treatment. Smooth lining. Foam cushioned insole….

Here’s another, using generic gusto in place of actual positioning:

A free and easy demeanor is projected by this beautifully tailored calfskin leather loafer featuring buckled accent. You’ll feel totally pampered with the leather-covered, high-density Memory Foam insole and soft leather lining….

I dunno. It isn’t terrible, but that comment in itself is no endorsement.

Worst #5

Clark’s Register

How hip can you get? The home page of the fall 2005 online catalog (the one extant as I write this) has a couple of the standard guys-needing-a-shave and gals-needing-a-comb photos, with the legend:

Sign up and be the first to know.

Aw…all right, I’ll click. Oops. Mistake. Up pops a demand for my name and e-mail address. So I’ll head left and click on the first item on the list, Eyewear. Hip? That’s an understatement. No descriptions, but the names of the glasses are a tipoff: Alfie…Left Brain…Moby…Old Money… Mr. Kent…Clive. We’ll take a shot at Left Brain. That seems safe.

Hmmm. Too safe. The complete description:

Smart rectangular black frame with olive at temples. Flexible hinge. Hard case.

That Spartan description may be atypical of this online version of their printed catalog, one I noticed because of overuse of the phrase “all about.” No question, the printed and online catalogs target their intended market, with the word “hip” itself overly prominent. Like others in this bunch, it isn’t terrible. It’s just so self-important the narratives don’t quite come off.

Whew! That’s it for this season. You may not agree with my conclusions. You may have other candidates for copy, good and bad. Or you may resent outside criticism. That’s okay. I’ve said before and probably will say until they lower me in a box: As Chicago Cub fans continually chant, there’s always next year.

Herschell Gordon Lewis is the principal of Lewis Enterprises in Fort Lauderdale, FL. Author of 29 books, including Catalog Copy That Sizzles, Asinine Advertising, and Effective E-Mail Marketing, he writes copy for and consults with clients worldwide.



I hadn’t seen this catalog until someone handed me a copy. Although it was labeled “Inspiration for active women,” my fear that it might be highfalutin was quickly dispelled. Copy cleverly and brightly integrates that statement of purpose into product descriptions. One example, a heading covering a page of casual garments: Celebrate Your Life: Nourish your soul with Junonia’s famous made-for-you styling and fit. Waltz beneath a harvest moon. Play in the leaves beside a mountain lake. Sit by a fire. The copy hugs the reader, and that’s worthy of applause.


What separates Levenger from the milieu of office product catalogs is the copywriter’s ability to generate an interest in items in which one seldom would have any interest…unless goaded by motivational copy. The headlines are the best examples. Here are a couple. Don’t they make you want to read the text that follows?

Notebooks are for more than notes
Punch up your writing with 3-D ink
Wrap your notebook in a soft leather jacket
Universal life insurance for laptops


Business catalogs aren’t often grist for a “superior copy” mill because all of us have seen business catalogs grunting and heaving to be clever, with negative or even disastrous results. Topdeq’s office furniture and accessories catalog walks the high wire in high style. But even more significant, Topdeq helps the office manager design the office. A copy fragment, from the midsection of a description of a multiworker combination: Depending on your workstation configuration and space situation, a number of table variations are possible: individual tables, two-person and four-person workstations. In addition, the system also offers….

Maybe next year for these three.


Start making plans to attend ACCM, the Annual Conference for Catalog, Internet & Multichannel Merchants, cosponsored by Multichannel Merchant, May 8-10 at McCormick Place in Chicago.

For details visit

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