In search of an ombudsman

Nov 01, 1998 10:30 PM  By

I long have preached the doctrine of having an outsider-someone not involved in product acquisition or product description-check catalog copy for logic. n No, I’m not referring to a proofreader. I’m suggesting a designated ombudsman. I’d compare this role with that of an independent counsel, although not in as dogged nor agenda-laden a mode as one hired by the government. The ombudsman would be responsible to only the highest authority. The creative director, the art director, the head of merchandising-none of these should have any influence or control.

Why shouldn’t they have any control? Because if they did, the job would be for window-dressing only, not for serious reinterpretation of how copy appearing in print or on the Web represents the company.

How about clarity? Consider this catalog heading: “The skinny on bed and bath.” This cataloger needs an ombudsman.

Yeah, I’m aware of current slang. I’m also aware that by the time it filters down to the over-35s, it’s already worn out among its originators. For many-maybe even for most-who see a king-size bed under a headline starting with “The skinny…” the reaction has to be, “Huh?”

I’ll bet four dollars that whoever wrote that head is under age 30. So the copywriter generated copy not for the catalog’s readers but for the creative team. And somebody approved it. That’s why the ombudsman shouldn’t answer to creative or art directors, who may share an oblique attitude.

Which Scottish soap do you want? Here’s a catalog that, on page 2, offers a “Pure & Simple Tropical Sampler.” It consists of twelve 7-oz. bars of soap, made in Scotland. Regular price is $36.00, the sale price is $29.99.

Let’s move on to page 24, with its heading, “Pure & Simple Floral Sampler.” Yep, it’s twelve 7-oz. bars of soap, made in Scotland. Price is $38.00. To which the typical soaper puzzles, “Huh?” That is a catalog in need of an ombudsman.

And what might that ombudsman have suggested, in this instance? If these two soap samplers differ-and from the photographs they don’t seem to-he or she would have insisted that they be given adjacent positions, with the differences explained. If they don’t differ, the ombudsman would have earned his or her salary for the month just by pointing this out.

Subtleties a proofreader might miss Not every call on an ombudsman’s talent is obvious. But certainly, anyone qualified to be a catalog ombudsman recognizes the necessity of a quick link from the headline to the body copy.

So a proofreader certainly would catch the ghastly grammatical error but might find nothing wrong with the logical error in this next one; in fact, “wrong” is too harsh a word. Rather, the proofreader might miss or discount the lack of linkage. The ombudsman wouldn’t. The heading:

Get a light or vigorous workout with our electronic monitored Mini Stepper.

And the body copy:

Step up to better health in the convenience of your home as you tone waist, calves, hips, and thighs with this Mini Stepper. It’s extremely smooth pulley system uses resistance from hydraulic cylinders to improve your endurance and cardiovascular performance as well as muscle tone. A built-in computer records elapsed time and counts number of steps taken. Made of durable steel…[rest of copy is mechanical].

I certainly hope you aren’t wondering what the grammatical error is. Somebody who doesn’t know the difference between “its” and “it’s” is grammatically challenged beyond any help we might offer. The mini-problem an ombudsman would catch and rectify is the “light or vigorous” reference that is never covered in the text, although ample opportunity abounds. The elapsed time computer provides a perfect refer-back opportunity, such as: “Whether for a couple of minutes between conferences or for your daily tone-up….” And this should be first in line, since it’s the headline reference.

Figure this one out! Titanic mania rages hot. Here’s a ship model, and kids, it ain’t cheap. The heading:

Limited Edition TITANIC! $699.00 Length overall 24.5″

The picture is of a ship model that doesn’t quite look like the Titanic but has four stacks and the name Titanic on it. Any question about what this is? Keep reading. Here’s every word of one of the strangest ombudsman-ready copy blocks you’ll see today:

TITANIC! 15 April 1912! The ship that wouldn’t sink… Amazing, the movie cost more than White Star Lines paid Harland & Wolff, Belfast to build the original. 46,439 tons, 882.5′ LOA, 92′ beam, triple screw, combination triple expansion engines and turbine, 23 knots. Her sister, Olympic, was also bad luck! Collided with HMS Hawke, 1911; rammed by German U-103, 1918; rammed and sank the Nantucket Lightship, 1934; demolished 1937. Tucher & Walther couldn’t resist. Four funnels, but only twin screws, with big wind-up motor. Limited edition of 750, with Certificate and box. Hopefully proving that a pool is somewhat safer than the North Atlantic! Mea culpa! “Oops.., I goofed when I wrote the original copy. Titanic fans, please accept my sincerest apologies.”-Slim

Okay, we’ll accept your sincerest apologies if you’ll accept the sincerest advice that you need an ombudsman.

There’s plenty more where these came from-but since this is the production issue, Catalog Age won’t dedicate this entire publication to my candidates for outside help.

So I’ll just mention in passing a catalog of outdoor furniture whose description includes the statement “Both tables stand 28″ high and have a 2″ umbrella hole” but shows and lists a price for only one table.

I’ll shrug away the copy for a “multi-purpose rug” that never suggests any purpose, leaving the reader to wonder what the purpose might be other than just being a rug. Maybe you can place one in five different rooms.

I’ll accept but never order the “Keep Food Cold or Hot up to Three Days” bag that boasts, “This bag maintained the ice crystals on a frozen steak for 36 hours at 68 degrees.” Does one brag about ice crystals on a frozen steak?

I’ll even give just a cursory mention to the otherwise astute catalog company that thoughtfully sends a welcome letter to its customers…while thoughtlessly bypassing the opportunity to resell or at least offer something.

Your turn. You be the ombudsman for any catalog on your table. If you’re especially stouthearted, make it yours.