Killing 200 birds with one stone

Mar 01, 1999 10:30 PM  By

You’ve heard the old joke: A fellow walks into a store. On the shelves are boxes and bags of salt. Salt everywhere. “You have a lot of salt here,” he tells the proprietor. “Oh, that’s nothing. Take a look at our storeroom.” In the storeroom, floor to ceiling: salt. “I guess you must sell a lot of salt.” “Not really,” says the proprietor. “We don’t sell much salt. But the guy who sells salt to us-can he sell salt!” n That’s the story with what seems to be a catalog product phenomenon-the singing bird clock. I wouldn’t have noticed how many catalogs include this clock if I hadn’t, on the same day, been the recipient of three catalogs featuring this item. That brought my prominent ears erect, and I began looking for the item. Wow! Can that guy sell bird clocks!

And that gives us the rare and pure opportunity to compare selling copy for this clock, catalog against catalog and clock against clock.

Seen one of these? The Singing Bird Clock has 12 songbirds positioned where numerals normally would be. As the hands hit the hour, the voice of that particular bird rings out for nine seconds. To avoid causing the household from going nuts, a light sensor plus a manual control shuts off the sound, so you won’t lurch startled out of bed to the tweet of a blue jay at 3 a.m. Three AA batteries (not included, as usual) power the thing.

One catalog claims that the sounds were recorded live “at Cornell University’s renowned Ornithology

Department.” I can’t tell whether “renowned” is fact or hyperbole, because I’ve never been exposed to Cornell’s Ornithology Department (how specialized can you get?).

The catalog I’ve just mentioned shows one big clock and four satellite clocks. “Each measures 13″ diameter.” Depending on whether you want the plain vanilla clock or a green one or an oak frame or one that shows temperature and humidity (birds are cold-blooded, so if it’s freezing out will the clock choke up?) or a slightly smaller one with a pendulum or an 8″ desktop model, prices range from $24.95 to $69.95.

Another catalog shows the same bird clock plus a similar clock with a steam locomotive on its face and two callouts: “Clang-clang” and “Toot-toot.” This catalog starts its descriptive copy with “Choose the soothing, authentic sounds of birds singing or a vintage locomotive pulling out of the station.” And it underscores two comparative problems: 1) either clock is $19.95; 2) the catalog doesn’t indicate clock sizes, although the picture seems to be the oak model that costs $59.95 in the other catalog.

“Wait! I’m not through!” A third catalog reinforces the Cornell reference, says the clock frame is “genuine oak, 14″ in diameter,” and prices the clock at $39.95, adding a competitive “Compare our original to the cheap plastic knockoffs. Also see our wild animal clock on page 36!” Page 36 shows lions and tigers and bears, oh my…plus other beasts who growl and howl on the hour. What a delightful way to wake up. But seriously, folks, this catalog has truly great copy. First line: “It’s certainly not everyone who can tell a friend that a snarling leopard gave you the time of day.” Another sample: “Mute switch lets you keep the critters at bay anytime, photocell puts them to sleep for the night. Capture one now.”

(Got to tell you whose catalog this was: The Edge Co., whose copy I’ve admired for years.)

Oops! In another catalog, here’s the green one again. Copy is pedestrian, but a boxed chunk of type carries the warning “Don’t be fooled by imitations! Only the original singing bird clock has the exact authenticity and sound quality necessary to be approved by Cornell University’s Ornithology Department.” This one is $24.99 and says, “A portion of the proceeds will go to promote the study and care of wildlife.”

I’d have capitalized Singing Bird Clock in the previous copy block, but I have to admire that word “exact” in there. This catalog was the tip-off that all is not serene in Birdland, and before my explorations were finished three events occurred:

1) Great balls of fire! There’s the clock, as a mail-order item on TV, for $19.95.

2) Sufferin’ succotash! There’s the clock in a Walgreens free-standing insert for $18 (“Save $7.90 Over TV Retail”) and in a Valassis FSI in a 9″ incarnation for $7.95 (“Better value than different Bird Song Clocks sold by others for up to $60.00″). Another FSI shows one, two, three, four clocks-Singing Birds, Meowing Cats, Barking Dogs, and Talking Wild Animals-for $9.98 each (“$49.98″ crossed out).

3) Yumpin’ yiminy! As the novelty begins to peter out, yet another ad in a free-standing insert, now half a page instead of a page, says, “Why pay $19.95? As low as $5.00.” Explanation of “As low as”: The first clock is $6.95, additional clocks are $5.00. I guess not much of this will go to promote the study and care of wildlife, unless one considers clock distributors as wildlife.

Of course we understand We all understand how fragile are 1) product innovation benefit; 2) product pricing; 3) product knockoff and “economy model” introductions; and 4) product life.

As catalogers, we also should understand that professional catalog copywriting, in a competitive ambience, should follow the venerable concept espoused by adman Rosser Reeves in his book Reality in Advertising more than 35 years ago: Invent and exploit a unique selling proposition. Your Singing Bird Clock has an oak frame and costs $49.95? Fine. Your Singing Bird Clock has a plastic frame and sells for $9.95? Fine. And your Singing Bird Clock has no apparent benefit? Fine. Invent one.