Is your copy trying too hard?

Nov 01, 1999 10:30 PM  By

One man’s meat is another man’s poison. And as catalog copy becomes more and more hypertargeted, two circumstances become more and more apparent. The first is a necessary evolution. Mass-aimed, generalized catalogs are in eclipse. Specialization, accelerated by the World Wide Web, is a major criterion of ongoing success. That means the importance of the database is at least as significant as the importance of creative copywriting. The second circumstance is – well, it’s less promising. By aiming product copy foursquare at a specific target group, the catalog tends to bypass, or even alienate, some targets who might have responded to an approach with which they could more easily identify.

Looking for J. Peterman

The J. Peterman catalog, lionized by its aficionados, wound up with not enough aficionados. Can we draw a cosmic conclusion from that sad demise?

Of course not. But we can analyze current catalog copy (and illustrations) based on the danger of being too hip, too “with it,” too cute, too arm-around-the-shoulder, or too singularly targeted to develop a secondary appeal.

Here is the beginning of the copy block in a fancy foods catalog, for a “wicker basket of breakfast choices” (although the photo hides the basket, in my opinion a graphic mistake):

“HONEY, YOU’VE GOT TO GET UP”

You’ve tried nudging and nuzzling, your only recourse is to make her breakfast in bread. Like her touseled hair on the pillow, you set out to make something innocent and stripped of pretense. Now aren’t you glad you ordered this wicker basket of breakfast choices?…

What’s your opinion of this copy? Mine is mixed.

Unquestionably the copywriter deserves applause for adding color, departing from tired straightforward description. That’s a positive. Negatives, aside from the first sentence, which joins two sentences with a comma, are two: First, this is a food catalog. Will women ignore this item because the copy is aimed at men? Second, “something innocent and stripped of pretense” is both disingenuous and pretentious.

On the other hand…

How would you sell a miniature of Rodin’s sculpture “The Thinker?” Obviously, you’d have to have a very upscale catalog. Okay, that’s what this one is. But how do you pitch it?

In this instance, the writer chose a gift pitch, although this isn’t a gifts catalog. The complete description:

A TRULY THOUGHTFUL GIFT

Based on the heroic original at the Baltimore Museum of Art, this 12″ high bronzed patina replica of the world-famous The Thinker sculpture brings the legendary artistic genius of Rodin to your desktop. Inspired by Dante’s “Divine Comedy,” The Thinker was conceived as a figure looking through the gate of Hell and reflecting on human suffering. For the reflective friend or contemplative client, this pensive piece blends with any background and makes a truly thoughtful gift which can be engraved.

I’m torn. I understand the relationship between “The Thinker” and “Thoughtful Gift,” but I would have put “Thoughtful” in quotation marks so that the intent couldn’t be misunderstood. I don’t like “based on,” which indicates that this isn’t a true replica. And I don’t know what the writer means by “bronzed patina,” but I assume it’s clever copywriting to suggest bronze when the miniature actually isn’t. All together, the combination of education and sell is pretty good, assuming the casual reader doesn’t become as analytical as we are.

Aw, come on

The writer of a description of Waterford pens has better than half a page to show three pens – the rollerball for $90, the fountain pen for $110, and the ball pen for $75.

The curious opening of the description:

WATERFORD “GLEN OF THE TWO LAKES”

Deep in the mountains of Ireland is a valley known as “Glen of the Two Lakes.” This region with its great rivers and lakes provided the inspiration for Waterford’s newest writing instrument series….

I think a typical reaction would be “Huh?” Are these like the original Reynolds ballpoint pens, which wrote under water (but nowhere else)? Saying pens are the result of somebody’s inspiration from a couple of lakes…well, that’s a strain. But the key question is: Is this the optimal way to sell Waterford pens? And another question remains unanswered: Waterman pens have been around forever, but Waterford, assuming it’s the same company, is known for fine crystal. An upscale tie to sophistication wouldn’t have been out of order.

When pens are priced close to Mont Blanc and other aristocratic writing instruments, how does the copywriter make his offering competitive? As an opinion: This isn’t the way.

Color information, please

A slim-jim catalog that uses illustrations instead of photographs features a duster. My wife handed me the catalog with a question: “Why don’t they tell me what color it is?”

This is the entire description, other than the sizes:

Cotton Knit Duster

Pure cotton A-line duster finishes many outfits in your wardrobe. Button front. Falls about 36″ from natural waist to ankle. Machine wash. USA.

Understand, the catalog is in color. But the color of the duster might be white; it might be “natural”; it might be ivory. Clarity, please. (My wife didn’t order.)

`Chega de Saudade’ and all that

It’s a pleasure to watch a pro in action. And after the caterwauling I’ve done, I have to recognize whoever it is who writes copy for an apparel catalog called The Territory Ahead.

Even when I’m not sure what the references are, I react to the exuberance and inventiveness of descriptions such as “While our Chameleon Silk Polo doesn’t change colors or provide camouflage….” Copy for a Bahia Silk Shirt begins, “It’s an `orange juice, no coffee’ day. A top-down, drive-alone morning with `Chega de Saudade’ playing and….” Yokel that I am, I don’t know “Chega de Saudade.” But the writer’s mood is contagious.

This is the beginning of the description of a pair of sandal-type shoes called (and headlined) “Conscientious Objectors”:

In a nutshell, our Conscientious Objectors have a somewhat granola-eating, tree-hugging, VW-van-driving, whale-saving, organic-gardening, trash-recycling, guitar-playing, incense-burning, poetry-writing, bead-wearing, peace-loving sensibility. And they’re also as comfortable to wear as a pair of slippers. That’s because….

Something for everybody

We’ve already described the dilemma on whose horns any commentator is impaled: Hyperspecialization takes a huge bite out of populist copy.

So who are we to criticize Laura Ashley for a catalog that has neither copy nor prices and whose purpose is to drive the recipient to stores whose addresses aren’t given…unless we typify those who would have responded to a different type of message?

Who are we to say, “I’d have considered that Christmas wreath in the Trifles catalog if the description hadn’t been so cold-blooded” (“For instant holiday decorating, 24″ Dia. evergreen wreath and 9′ long garland. Both made of polyvinyl and decorated with golden cherry blossoms, pine cones, and ribbons”)…unless we actually would have bought the wreath if copy had adopted a “‘Tis the season to be jolly” tone or waxed more emotional?

Yes, one man’s meat is another man’s poison. The trick, as professional copywriter/marketers, is to be sure the maximum number of recipients regard your offerings as meat.