Tailoring the text

Let’s suppose you come upon an attractive-looking catalog and open it to a random page. Four items are on that page-1) a garment that, in loose art, resembles a Nehru jacket; 2) a drinking glass; 3) a floor-length skirt; 4) a piece of metal furniture that might be either a table or a stool. n These are the first sentences of the descriptions (numerals are mine): 1) I look forward to crunching through the fritter crust and discovering what kind of spicy masala is inside. 2) FUFLUNS. No traces of satyrs and maenads. 3). SKIRT A LA PARISIENNE. Sweeping, lined silk. 4) SOMETHING BORROWED, SOMETHING DADA. Sunday at the Porte de Clignancourt, the Marche aux Puces.

Except for the third, mightn’t you feel you had intruded into a private conversation?

Yes…if you had no prior exposure to this, the J. Peterman catalog, which revels in such abstruse (and sometimes delightfully literary) references. No…if prior exposure to the catalog had bestowed a proprietary position to you, causing you to feel you were part of that private conversation.

Who am I? Who are you? Catalogs that depend on a self-predetermined copy-driven image have a huge obvious advantage and two subtle disadvantages in the competitive marketplace. The advantage is that some recipients actually look forward to the catalog as they’d look forward to receiving the next issue of a favorite magazine.

The first disadvantage is that repeating a similar copy block two or three times parallels repeats of a clever television commercial: Novelty has a short, happy life, and “Here it is again” isn’t much of a motivator.

The second disadvantage is that the newcomer may feel excluded…or worse, form an aggressive conclusion that the cataloger is creating an excluding (as opposed to “exclusive”) “in” group of which this catalog reader isn’t a member.

The trick, then, is to maintain the advantage of a carefully prefabricated image and to avoid the disadvantages of recognizable repetition and apparent arrogance in word use.

The most inclusive word: “you” In catalogs, as in direct mail-or for that matter, in any form of force-communication-one of the most primitive psychological ploys still has inclusive power.

The word is no secret: “you.” That it has inclusive power doesn’t mean the catalog copywriter always uses it powerfully. Only when the writer consciously, deliberately, and beneficially includes the reader does the power spin into overdrive.

So an automatic “you” has little impact, but “you ought to” (superior to “you should”) or “you will” or “you’ll benefit from” drills into the core of self-centered personal psychology.

Thus, a canvas slipcover for a couch, at less motivational fingertips, might have a heading such as “Canvas Couch Cover” or “Cover a sofa in minutes.” The actual-and effective-headline in the Solutions catalog:

Update an old sofa…protect a new one. The mild imperative emphasizes use and benefit. I’ll venture a not-so-controversial opinion: Unless a catalog customer is specifically looking for an item, use and benefit will outpull physical description.

Oh, physical description has to be there. But physical description is the reinforcer, not the enforcer.

Which one grabs you? The Horchow Collection, one of the better-known home decor and bedding catalogs, regularly features Ralph Lauren bedding. A description, from a catalog titled “Fine Linen Collection”:

“CHARLOTTE” AND “MADELINE” Trust our favorite American designer to offer linens in an unpredictable but thoughtfully synergistic mix of patterns and textures. Ralph Lauren’s classic floral print “Charlotte” blends easily with texture-rich cream “Madeline” matelasse. Sheets are 200-count cotton; machine wash. U.S. made. Matelasse, of jacquard woven cotton from Portugal; dry clean.

In this cataloger’s “Anniversary Sale” edition, the description is less rhapsodic and more pedestrian:

RALPH LAUREN BEDDING A pleasant, soft-spoken mix of patterns with just the right amount of punch. Fitted sheet and cases are striped; flat sheet is floral with ruffled hem. U.S. made of 200-count cotton. Blue-and-white “Fallon” quilts and sham of pure cotton. Imported. All, machine washable.

Aside from the confusion that “U.S. made” and “Imported” generate by being in the same copy block, which of these two descriptions might cause you to lift your pen or phone? (Everyone in my office knew what matelasse is; no one had the foggiest notion what “Fallon” is.)

Don’t be misled by rhetoric. Many readers who will be turned off by phraseology such as “unpredictable but thoughtfully synergistic” will respond to the straightforward “Fitted sheets and cases are striped.” But for a “sale” catalog edition, aren’t we missing something-anything-that suggests “sale”?

(A parenthetical note: The photograph in the “Sale” book has three alarm clocks on the bedside table and another clock on the wall. Each clock is set to a different time. Tsk, tsk.)

If a point is to be made about matching what we say to those to whom we say it, the point would be this: Link up with your best targets, recognizing what they expect to see. Catalogs are no marketplace for an arrogant “if I say it, they will come” copy approach.

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