Mostly roses, a few weeds

Sep 01, 1998 9:30 PM  By

I’ll venture a dangerous opinion: Year after year, the copy in those catalogs chosen as Annual Catalog Award winners has been getting progressively more readable. n Somebody out there has begun to realize that a really good catalog represents really good reading. I’m in favor of this evolutionary trend, because anything we can do to cause a recipient to look forward to getting a catalog or to say to a spouse, “Hey, look at this!” is good for our industry.

So this year’s crop of Annual Catalog Awards winners sports some truly superior copy…some of it powerful, some of it poetic, some of it so sweetly rational that it represents the pinnacle of salesmanship.

Some other winners indicate (at least to my warped and jaded mind) the kind of contempt for the copywriting function one sees when creative management dedicates itself solely to art treatment, and others are like that scene in The Wizard of Oz where the curtain pulls aside, revealing struggling machinery we shouldn’t show to our targets.

Jackson & Perkins This gardening catalog is as perennial a winner as its roses. The visual effect is stunning, beginning with the first inside spread. Now, note, please-this is not a criticism: Copy is at variance with layout. The descriptions of the flowers are by and large workmanlike, specific, and helpful to the gardener. Romance is rare. An example:

CLIMBING ROSES Climbers are vigorous and easy to grow, adding drama and interest to your landscape. They will bloom heavily for years, climbing a trellis or trailing along a fence, or accenting a wall with a splash of color. Give them plenty of room and fertilizer.

Except for “a splash of color,” this is straightforward journeyman copy, the type of wording one might expect from a knowledgeable clerk in the floral department of Wal-Mart. As I said, my comment isn’t a criticism, because we have 78 pages of flowers and the copywriter’s unenviable job-no, make that the copywriter’s impossible job-would be to create poetry for each variety. Still, even a journeyman should be able to give us greater specificity than “adding drama and interest to your landscape.”

Backroads Here is an almost flawless catalog. Every aspect is superb-photographs, layout, and copy. The catalog of biking trips starts off in high gear with a spread titled “The Backroads Experience.” This sets a top-of-the-line mood that isn’t transgressed by even one sentence in a perfect-bound 100-page catalog.

As a cyclist, I salivate over such lyrical descriptions as the paragraph preceding the nuts-and-bolts specifics of “Vibrant Andalucia”:

Thousands of fragrant olive trees. Orange blossoms and jasmine. Whitewashed villages clinging to hilltops. Miles of quiet country roads. A fascinating history and rich artistic heritage. The Moors, great lovers of art and poetry, ruled Andalucia for centuries, and their influence still shines through in the region’s great gardens and palaces. Come for the sights, the scenery, the local cuisine and plentiful sangria. Discover why this vibrant pocket of Spain is a bicyclist’s paradise.

Near-perfect! “Whitewashed villages clinging to hilltops” is worthy of anthologized Elizabethan poets. (Why “near”-perfect? Because of mini-lapses such as “great” twice in one sentence. The typical reader might interpret the second use as a nonspecific “Wow!” claim. Substitutes: “Awesome”? “Celebrated”? “Grand”?)

Catalyst Here’s the complement to Backroads-a catalog of bicycle-related gear and goodies. Outsiders might snicker at “Entry-Level Mountain Bikes” whose prices start at $269.99…but they won’t when they read the copy for the various bicycles in this catalog. For the genuine biker, the Ground A-1 Control Comp AIM at $1,199.99 isn’t overpriced. And therein lies the award-winning rationale behind a hypertargeting catalog such as this: It caters to a specialized taste without alienating outsiders. Like many hyperspecialized catalogs, Catalyst includes several tips and suggestions on the art of cycling. Successfully juggling a surprisingly big selection of biking helmets, the catalog has sidebars describing helmet fit, helmet strap adjustment, and the right and wrong way to wear a helmet. Overkill, perhaps, but the effect is to position this company as the ultimate authority on cycling matters.

Depending on whether you’re dealing with an audience of insiders or outsiders, irreverence is either a disarming technique or an annoyance. This syndicated catalog for cycling retailers is aimed foursquare at biking insiders, so the headline over a spread of “youth bikes” not only brings a chuckle but adds rapport:

Your kid is 17 times harder on a bike than you are.* Make sure you get the durability of a GT bike.

* OK, we made this up but it sure seems to be true.

Economy of phrase, “in” terminology, and a direct appeal to the wants of the catalog’s readers spark the copy. An example, from a page of Trek bicycles:

Front Suspension Bikes Trek front suspension bikes are purebred mountain machines. Choose from OCLV carbon fiber, Advanced Bonding Technology (ABT) aluminum, or chromoly frames. Whichever bike you buy, you’re assured it’s not carrying an extra ounce of weight beyond what you need for all-out performance and strength.

What’s OCLV carbon fiber? Beats me. I assume that Catalyst’s readers will know this; if not, deduct one point.

Smart Selections Here we have an office supplies catalog of more than 300 pages. Commenting on this book’s copy is difficult because it’s from the United Kingdom, where such matters as apostrophes and singular/plural decisions differ from usage in the U.S. An example, from a page describing motivational pictures:

Employee Motivation Peoples attitude is the success of every business. Their attitude is reflected on your business in everything they say, do, and produce. Stewart Superior have a range of highly motivational pictures carrying messages to hype your team and promote morale.

Unsettling, isn’t it? Still, I recall my first visit to Harrods in London, wondering what happened to the possessive apostrophe. And pluralizing a group name is proper English grammar. But, accepting the differentials, I’m still not impressed by the boilerplate sentence, “People’s attitude is the success of every business.”

Curiously desensitized copy flourishes in this catalog, underscored by lack of punctuation. The first sentence of a description of the Hewlett-Packard Scanjet 5P printer:

A compact office tool that will instantly enhance your communications.

First sentence for the HP Laserjet 6L Printer and Companion: Offers the print speed, output quality and media flexibility that individual users in offices large and small require.

It’s a handsome catalog, impeccably organized. And we, used to prosaic copy in office products catalogs, shouldn’t isolate this one for criticism, except that it’s an Annual Catalog Award winner.

Priorities Of all the catalogs I’ve seen in this year’s group of award winners, this three-year-old company has the most consistently effective copy.

Quite an accolade, especially since this catalog has only 24 pages, and an ungodly number of product descriptions refer to dust mite avoidance (the catalog’s subhead is “The Allergy and Asthma Relief Catalog”).

What’s most impressive is the first sentence of each product description. That first sentence is the “teller.” Checking through the catalog, I couldn’t find a single first sentence that wasn’t 100% professional, although some are…well, they’re lonnnnnng. A few examples of first sentences from descriptions in Priorities:

* You would never guess this exquisite blanket was made from cotton.

* If you suffer from allergies or chemical sensitivities, this all-natural herbal soap will surely have you singing in the shower!

* Using pure linen and a blend of the world’s best cottons, including Egyptian cotton, skilled Portuguese craftspeople weave these rugs individually on tabletop looms and on jacquard machines-without using pesticides, glues, or dyes.

I haven’t quoted the catalog’s sidebars, such as “What’s so bad about showering with chlorinated water?” and “Indoor air pollution: Not just a seasonal problem.” Equally effective.

South Cape Whoever writes copy for this apparel catalog from Australia is in love with words. That’s a mixed blessing, because stretching for the unusual word can sometimes generate a “Huh?” reaction. Example, the first sentence for a shawl-collar sweater:

For all its somewhat military presence and meticulous finish, there’s more than a little “snuggle factor” to this very versatile sweater.

Huh? Military presence? The picture shows a standard couple, no evidence of militarism in evidence.

Another “Huh?” generator:

Our aptly named “Superior T” is as soft as…well, as soft as our almost indescribably soft cotton interlock.

We get the feeling that we should understand the sentence. Is “soft cotton interlock” related to this item? If so, is it as soft as itself? What?

Still, I admire writers who care about words. This writer is working to create a word picture of a product. Example:

Take 100% cotton canvas, soften it just a touch with a gentle pre-wash, and you’re well on the way to a jacket that feels friendly and familiar the first time you slip it on.

And then they wrote…

If the editors of Catalog Age were only gracious enough to let me commandeer the entire magazine, I’d be able to opine on all the annual catalog winners. Unfortunately they aren’t that benevolent.

So for this year I’ll have to settle for a partial evaluation of the award winner copy. But before I retire from this arena, I’ll again repeat the two imperatives that (in my opinion) should guide catalog copywriting:

1) Don’t throw words away, assuming the illustration will carry the day;

2) Don’t struggle so intensely to achieve colorful terminology that the reader becomes aware you’re struggling to achieve colorful terminology.

Describe. Sell. Convince. That’s all there is to it.