THE BEST & WORST CATALOG COPY

Hoorays & nays

Here I go again, sticking my head into the lion’s mouth with the annual masochistic project of publishing personal prejudices. Every year, finding excellent catalogs is easier, and finding deficient ones is more difficult. The competitive nature of our world, with competition enhanced by online catalogs, is a winnowing process that seems to increase attention to creative word use.That’s a point I want to emphasize: We’re discussing copy here, not photography, graphics, or production.

Best #1

Penzeys Spices

Who would expect a catalog of spices and baking ingredients to be a marvelous blend of information, readability, and salesmanship? Those who get the Penzeys catalog, that’s who.

Where many might list ingredients, Penzeys explains them and often prints recipes using those ingredients. I’m looking at one example, Cajun Style Seasoning, in which an appetizing description is followed by what seems to be an easy-to-prepare recipe. Huge added reasons to hang onto the catalog are multiple copy inserts not tied to product, explaining terms and uses. Example: “What does mesh size mean?”

First sentences are thoughtful, salesworthy, and deceptively simple. For Chili Con Carne Seasoning, “Spicy flavor, but no heat.” For Chervil, “Chervil is a sweet herb which has a very delicate flavor and is often used in Europe in the same place we would use parsley.” For Caraway Seed, “The early Greeks knew caraway could calm an upset stomach and used it to season foods that were hard to digest.”

Best #2

Bas Bleu

I admit cheerfully, I’m a sucker for bright literacy. Bas Bleu, if you haven’t seen it, is a catalog that’s more entertaining and enlightening than some of the books, novelties, and games described in its pages.

Note the hidden wryness in one nugget from the many eye-catchers — the first few lines of the description of the book Essential Manners for Men:

As an heir to Emily Post’s etiquette empire, Peter Post (Mrs. Post’s great-grandson) has impressive credentials. Now he’s put them to good use and penned a manners guide specifically for modern men. In a straightforward, conversational style, Post lays out rules for being a true gentleman of the twenty-first century: when and where to remove your baseball cap, why swearing is counterproductive, how not to be a slave to your cell phone….

Never strident, never overstated, yet never underdescribed, each description in this catalog is a little gem. Equally creative is the selection of what to quote from each book, or what uses to suggest for each gift or novelty item.

Best #3

She-works

Imagine a catalog of accessories, aimed at the distaff side, that incorporates a delicate sense of humor. That’s rare and worthy of attention.

She-works doesn’t seem to take itself seriously, and the result is a highly readable catalog whose salesmanship is implicit in the very wording.

For a small wallet, called Cash Klutz, copy begins:

Is your wallet so hard to get out of your purse that you stuff money in your pockets or hold up everyone else while you dig?

The beginning of the description of a foot lotion, titled Footie Facial:

Those poor little footies we walk and stand on all day long need some pampering too! With this Foot-cial Kit, your toes will thank you.

Yup. Text that’s a day brightener is worthy of note.

Best #4

Heartland America

Heartland America isn’t about to win an art directors’ award. Product is all over the place, and body type is seven point at best. But we’re dissecting copy, and Heartland America’s copywriters, whoever they are, understand a key selling word: motivation.

Every heading includes benefit as a reason to buy. Every description justifies the heading. And that, my friends, is powerful catalog copy.

Many catalogs describe walkie-talkies; no heading beats this: “Keep In Touch Up to Five Miles Away At the Press Of A Button Without Cell Phone Charges!”

Another, for a radar detector: “The Latest And Most Effective Weapon In The War Against Costly Speeding Tickets!”

Okay, Heartland America, now that I’ve complimented you to the extreme, how about abandoning those archaic initial caps?

Best #5

M.F. Blouin

Mfblouin.com is the online version of the M.F. Blouin business-to-business catalog of display materials, Merchandising Solutions. If you check out either the online or the printed version, you won’t find anything fancy or tricky. You will find a symbiotic relationship between the two media, and that isn’t common in an era in which so many catalogs seem to have competing teams who regard the other bunch as rivals.

Not that this catalog is dull. Motivators abound, and they’re in sync with smart b-to-b catalog practice — no over-the-top claims. So a backlit floor display has this heading:

Nothing attracts attention like light! Blouin delivers great new ways of creating dynamic backlit displays that will add new dimensions to your products, services, and special promotions.

We applaud the attempt to add cachet without shrillness and forgive the use of obvious words such as “great new ways” and “products” because we recognize the difficulty of adding cachet to pedestrian display items.

LEWIS ON CATALOG COPY

Motivators and day brighteners

So much for the best ones. Now for the tough part — choosing five that don’t have cachet, selling power, or inventiveness. With bullet-deflecting armor in place, here goes. But note: This is doubly tough because I like the concepts of some of these.

Worst #1

Red Baron

If you haven’t seen this catalog, it’s because you aren’t on a list of possible bidders for art, antiques, or collectibles.

The pomposity of this catalog is heavy…and sometimes funny. Somebody dug out what he or she regards as relevant quotes, and they’re featured at the top of each right-hand page. The first is innocent enough, if a bit on the obvious side: “‘If you wisely invest in beauty, it will remain with you all the days of your life.’ — Frank Lloyd Wright.” I’d hate to think the architect is remembered for chestnuts such as that one.

But a paucity of quotes becomes apparent as the catalog’s pages flip by. Along with quotes from Louis Comfort Tiffany and Thomas Jefferson, here are some from Mario Andretti and Branch Rickey.

Branch Rickey? I’m of a vintage that remembers this name, although I can’t recall which baseball team he owned. The quote here, “Luck is the residue of design,” has all the clarity of “Nov schmoz ka-pop.”

Copy tends toward hyperbolic clichés: “The Fireplace mantel has been the traditional focal point of Grand Homes for centuries”…“Exceptional garden bench in carved stone”…“Exceptional three piece andiron set.” The words “exceptional” and “palatial” seem omnipresent.

Worst #2

Blair Clothing for Men

I’m pained to include this catalog, because Blair is an honorable and principled cataloger. But this subjective analysis centers on copy, not honor and principles. And the copy is flat.

Typical is the description of John Blair® Sweater Vests. (I see no reason for endlessly repeating the registration symbol throughout the catalog, for any number of house brands.) The descriptive copy could apply to 10,000 other items:

A truly versatile performer which accents just about anything in your wardrobe for up-to-the-minute good looks — at a surprisingly low price.

And here’s Irvine Park® Crew Pullovers: “A pullover so versatile, it’s perfect any day of the week.” You get the idea.

Worst #3

CDW

I can’t think of a more competitive marketplace than electronic goods and computers. Too, I can’t think of a more intriguing marketplace than electronic goods and computers. I leaf through these catalogs, as many do, trying to stay abreast of the specifics in new inventions and developments.

That’s why I find the CDW catalog disappointing: Apparently the creative team is unaware that headings and first sentences are the tellers.

Too many of the descriptions deal in generalities. First lines are, to be charitable, deadly. For a Hewlett-Packard digital projector: “The HP Digital Projector mp3130 gives you freedom, flexibility and superior quality.” For the Panasonic Toughbook 18 computer: “The Toughbook 18 has been designed from the ground up.” For the Bluetooth GPS Receiver: “The Bluetooth GPS Receiver offers advanced features — unique among GPS receivers — at a more affordable price.”

True, some of the product descriptions transcend this mediocrity, but in an ambience as competitive as this, every one of them should.

Worst #4

AMX Enterprises online

I don’t understand how, this deep into the era of online merchandising, a home page could begin with this legend: “AMX Enterprises does not have an e-mail address.”

Nor, apparently, does the company have a toll-free number. To complete the turnoff, prior to any information about product availability we see, with no punctuation, “prices subject to change without notice.” (In an online catalog, with price changes so easy to make, that total negative is unconscionable.)

Once you get beyond that uncertain beginning, the AMX Enterprises Website settles down. But unquestionably that’s too late for some.

Worst #5

Carabella Collection

Here’s an instance in which the online catalog seems to have a panache the printed catalog doesn’t have. The Carabella Website is easy to navigate, and both descriptions and segmentation are in order. The printed catalog doesn’t share these benefits.

I hadn’t known of the catalog in either incarnation, and that may be because Carabella is a catalog of women’s fashions. But a reader of the magazine you have in your hands called some of the Carabella copy to my attention, with the comment, “I’m surprised the copy doesn’t say, ‘Just look at the photographs.’” (Photographs aren’t a problem here.)

A few combo descriptions, in a catalog whose copy has no headlines: For a halter dress: “Halter dress with built-in tube top to hold you.” For a ruffled dress: “Ruffled dress with a hem that curves up in front and drops in back.” For an ankle strap show with a 3D flower: “Ankle strap shoe adorned with 3D flower.”

You may not agree with my conclusions. You may have other candidates, good and bad. Or you may resent outside criticism. That’s okay. As Chicago Cub fans continually chant, there’s always next year.


Herschell Gordon Lewis is the principal of Lewis Enterprises in Fort Lauderdale, FL. Author of 27 books, he writes copy for and consults with clients worldwide.

HERSCHELL GORDON LEWIS

THESE CAME CLOSE

FirstStreet is a catalog that used to be called TechnoScout. The name change may be due to a fear that the “Techno” pushed some nontechies aside. I like TechnoScout better than FirstStreet, but they didn’t ask me. Name notwithstanding, this is an exceptionally well written catalog, and that compliment applies to both the printed and online versions. The headlines are sprightly and bold, and the descriptions are specific and colorful. Just one example, for a prosaic product, a thermostat. The heading: “NEW! The thermostat of the future has arrived” (as is true of all the headings, there is no punctuation at the end. Why?) Copy begins: Traditional thermostats keep the temperature at a certain level all day, cutting on and off, even when you’re not there. This innovative thermostat turns your air on whenever you need it to. For example

Frontgate Gentlemen’s Domain is a superb catalog, and if in years past I hadn’t lauded Frontgate so often that some readers might think I’m on its payroll, it would be in this year’s top five. But no, I’m not on the payroll, because if I were I’d demand punctuation at the end of headings. Where did that unholy trend that infects FirstStreet and Frontgate begin, anyway? I’ll quote the beginning of just two copy blocks. For a casual shoe, the heading is “Now both of you can slip into something a little more comfortable.” First sentence of text: “Walk the Great Wall without feeling fatigued.” For a combination camera and binoculars, the heading is “View, photograph, and replay the big game.” First line of text: “Whether it’s rock climbing or a rock concert.”— HGL

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