My annual best and worst

Feb 01, 2008 10:30 PM  By

NEWS STORIES ARE LOADED WITH DEMANDS from various “advocacy” groups that catalogers abandon their printed catalogs and use only online distribution. As avant-garde as these suggestions may be, they’re also as premature as suggesting book publishers no longer bind books but issue them only on the Web. Will these folks settle for recycled paper? A better suggestion is that they weigh the benefit injected into the catalog universe by each medium. This year, in slathering over the job I most enjoy — criticizing the creative output of others — my conclusion is that print isn’t about to become obsolete and Web isn’t about to be ignored. The usual disclaimers are in place: First, these are my opinions, and for those opinions the buck stops here. Second, as befits this venerable column, comments relate to copy and only to copy. So with that understanding, let’s get under way.

BEST No. 1

Grandin Road

I’ve never been quite sure whether the name of this catalog is one word or two, or whether it’s upper or lower case. No matter. Copy is universally superb and benefit-laden to the point of inspiring.

Suppose your job is to describe a Nativity Set made of polyresin. Could you have matched this heading? The beauty of hand-carved stone, minus the fragility.

Note the multiple sales points crammed into this heading: Richly patterned Topaz Rug shrugs off food, fur, and even red wine.

Space obviously limits some descriptions, but clarity usually doesn’t suffer. A minor glitch: The entire copy-block for a rolled-paper gift wrap cutter doesn’t explain where we get the “ream” of paper, a term most of us associate with flat-cut sheets.

End the gift-wrap struggle. Our sturdy steel Gift Wrap Cutter holds up to one ream of paper, makes a clean cut, and eliminates the need for scissors. 30″W × 2″D × 8″H. 4 lbs. USA.

The writer comes back with a classic in perfectly tailored copy for wine glasses. The total description: Thin-stemmed Shatterproof Wine Glasses capture the look of crystal without the worries. The only delicate thing about our polycarbonate stemware is the way it looks — like real crystal. Bullet-proof durability that won’t stain or change color. Top-rack dishwasher safe. In 11-oz. White Wine or 15-oz. Red Wine sizes. Choose both and be ready for any vintage!

BEST No. 2

Coldwater Creek

What an incredible fusion of salesmanship, poetry, and ultimately descriptive precision the writer blends into this description of a woman’s sweater: Like a child’s mussed hair, this crinkled top with ruffly neckline has an impetuous charm. A sewn-in tank underscores the semi-sheer polyester. Scalloped hem, wrists. Machine wash. Imported.

Here’s another rhetorical gem, for a leather jacket. Could you have matched this “grabber” first line, then moved as effortlessly into specifics?

The luster may be borrowed from forged bronze. But the lissome jacket here is utterly soft, pliant leather. A stand collar and zippered front balance the curvy silhouette. Fully lined. Professional leather clean. Imported.

BEST No. 3

Lands’ End

Year after year, issue after issue, the Lands’ End catalog sets a steady pace for clarity and benefit. Now and then we see pedestrian copy, such as, for a cashmere sweater, “New! Our luxurious Cashmere Cowlneck surrounds her in nothing but the finest,” but such departures are so few they’re lost in the warm salesmanship of descriptions such as this one, under a big bright “Dependable warmth” heading with the subhead “The waterproof, breathable Goose Down Commuter.” Note how the description grabs you (I’m reprinting just the first half):

Men’s and Women’s. Ever stood on a blustery train platform during January in Chicago? Brrr! Those cold commutes led to this coat: packed with 650 fill power goose down, it’s warm, waterproof, windproof and breathable (thanks to Aqua-Check® technology). The mid-calf length keeps legs warm, and the coat is windproof, with sealed seams to keep out water…

As two bonuses, this catalog doesn’t use initial caps and does use models who look like people.

BEST No. 4

Filson

Many, even in our exalted catalog world, don’t know Filson, although the company’s history dates back to 1897. We can assume that the survival of this highly targeted catalog — aimed at men who spend lots of time outdoors in harsh weather and who, in the cover’s words, “Might as well have the best” — stems from steadfast aiming at that specialized group of targets.

The inside-the-cover copy begins with an 1897 quote by Clinton C. Filson. (Who can argue its authenticity?) “We guarantee every item purchased from us. No more, no less. Your satisfaction is the sole purpose of our transaction.”

“Might As Well Have The Best” is on the pitchy side because of its initial caps, but we don’t tamper with a 110-year-old slogan. Major items have callouts, increasingly rare and therefore increasingly valuable in an upscale catalog with a narrow aim.

The description of a $265 field jacket: (Note how it avoids both conviviality — using “it is” rather than “it’s” for example — and any suggestion of emotion that might lead to a “They’re trying to sell me” complaint.) OIL FINISH Tin Cloth Field Jacket Loaded with features, it stands up to the toughest field conditions. This jacket wears like armor. Made from Filson’s legendary Oil Finish Tin Cloth, it is designed for general field use or upland hunting, yet offers plenty of practical features for any outdoor activity. It features a warm, Mackinaw Wool-lined collar with a stand-up snap tab, a snap storm flap, a draw-cord waist and hem, adjustable inner cuffs and an interior zippered security pocket. The body is partially lined with comfortable 100% cotton; sleeves are unlined. Average length in back, 31“. Wipe or brush clean only. Made in the USA of imported cotton and USA wool.

One gets the feeling this is exactly how Clinton C. Filson would have written the words were he around today.

BEST No. 5


Dean & Deluca


Four years ago I jumped on Dean & Deluca, grousing that “this catalog says, ‘You know who we are. These are our prices and we don’t have to justify them.’ And they don’t justify them. They just state them, a patrician approach that works only on the predisposed.”

Either they’ve eased down just a few steps from Mount Olympus or I’ve mellowed. You decide, based on descriptions such as this one that begins: SPANISH CHEESE PLATE Don’t think of Spain as a great cheese country? Well, our Spanish Cheese Plate will change your mind. The Blue La Peral is a delicious cheese that’s more creamy and less piquant than a Valdeon. It is uniquely creamy and subtly sweet with a tanginess all its own. The velvety goat’s milk cheese, Garrotxa has luscious depth with a long finish and hints of nuts and herbs….

Exotic, huh? Who would admit we don’t indulge in Blue La Peral or garrote our palate with Garrotxa?

Well, so much for the upside.

These came close…


Nordstrom.com Nordstrom’s Web presence has some big winners and some placid losers. The home page seems to have a myriad of interest points, without seeming cluttered. Depending on when (and where) you land on it, you may — or may not — be intrigued by the “Savvy Future Perfect” photos of bony Goth-type models. That’s a fashion choice, and you can always skip to the men’s segments, or shoes. (I don’t think I’ve ever encountered such a huge laundry list of shoe designers. My resident women’s shoe collector pointed out the absence of Manolo Blahnik and Jimmy Choo.)

But even those who sense an overboard approach to the photography have to admire the ease of navigation and the clarity of exposition. Thumbnail photos lead quickly to complete descriptions that include just enough “sell” copy to be congruent with Web catalog descriptions. An example, for a taffeta jacket: Embrace the future of fashion in a liquid-shine tunic paired with body-conscious leggings. LaRok ‘Liquid’ Mock Turtleneck Tunic Slick, futuristic fabric is gathered and draped into a blouson tunic while buttons secure the mock turtleneck and banded hem. Polyester; hand wash. By LaRok; made in the USA of imported fabric. Savvy.

Clever? Nope, although I’d give an “A” to whoever thought of “body-conscious leggings. Intriguing without drawing attention to copy as copy? Yep.

AllegroMedical.com Here’s an online catalog that straddles a difficult market — the medical professional and the medical dilettante — and departs delightfully from the usual dry descriptions when a product warrants a lighter touch. For the “Loud Alarm Clock Sonic Bomb Alarm Clock from Sonic Alert”: The new Sonic Bomb Alarm AKA “The Bomb” has been designed for guys of all ages on a mission. The Sonic Boom Loud Alarm Clock comes in a stealth grey color with red controls, night vision display and pulsating alert lights that won’t keep you in the dark. The Loud Alarm Clock comes complete with a ground shaking super-charged bed shaker, and turbo-charged 113db extra loud alarm. Good luck sleeping through this blast, Batman.

NOW, LET’S LOOK DOWN AT FIVE CATALOGS


Disclaimer: Not one of these is terrible. Inclusion is what happens when we grade on the curve.

WORST No. 1


Eddie Bauer


The Biblical phrase “How are the mighty fallen” would be too strong a negative if the catalog under our microscope weren’t so well established. We in the catalog world have followed the history of this company, now in its 88th year, and its financial ups and downs.

The name has value. The catalog copy is flat, pedestrian and, in some descriptions, much in need of editing. Would you have accepted a description that begins this way?

Wool Blazer CLASSIC FIT We try to make our apparel simple, beautiful and perfect for everyday wear. This wool blazer is no exception.

WORST No. 2


Allen Brothers


I have the feeling this gourmet foods catalog uses several copywriters, because copy is all over the place. Paralleling Eddie Bauer the catalog can use a heavier blue pencil for its editing. One strange description:

Leg of Lamb. Prized for its tenderness, this incredible leg of lamb arrives to serve 12 to 16. The naturally delicate flavor of our high-quality domestic lamb lends itself well to your preferences; add as much or as little flavoring as you like before cooking. It comes boneless and tied, ready to roast and serve. Serves 12 to 16.

“Lends itself well to your preferences”? Hmmm. And yes, we know, we know, it serves 12 to 16.

WORST No. 3


Horchow


Ever get the feeling, as you read a catalog description, that the copywriter stopped before finishing or somebody deleted key copy? That’s the reaction some of the Horchow copy generates. An example, the total description for a $499 lamp:

“EVOLUTION” LAMP From Waterford®. Shapely crystal topped with a red silk shade. Three-way switch; uses one 100-watt bulb. 18“Dia. × 34.5“T. USA/imported.

“Shapely crystal”? Here’s another complete description:

WINGED VANITY CHAIR A perfect perch to ponder life. Handcrafted of solid birchwood with silk/chenille covering. 30“W × 19“DD × 31“T with 19“ seat height. Imported.

Apparently this catalog depends on illustrations to sell.

WORST No. 4


WhitehousePromotions.com


Here’s a question: Can’t copy be bright and motivational, whether created by a high-priced professional or by anyone who recognizes the difference between eye-grabbing and blah?

This catalog competes in a cutthroat business segment — advertising specialties. Copy such as “Promote your business with our online advertising specialties and promotional products catalog. Create good will handing out fun and useful promotional items displaying your message.” isn’t competitive.

For an imprintable flashlight, note the unnecessary repeats and lack of incentives: High Caliber Line — K-242-0. Plastic LED flashlight key chain with black grip, factory direct. Plastic LED flashlight key chain with black grip, factory direct. Material: Plastic Color: Silver Minimum Production Time: 50 day(s) Size: 2 7/8″

Maybe they need a proofreader more than they need a different copywriter.

WORST No. 5


New Braunfels Smokehouse


I’m really itchy about including this one, because it has some of the most appetizing photographs any food catalog can boast. But some of the copy — not all — seems to have been extruded rather than written. One example, at $74.95:

Jerky Combo. If you love the “classics” and have never understood the phrase, “too much of a good thing,” the Jerky Combo is the perfect deal for you. You get an incredible 1 lb. each of: Original Beef Jerky Pork Jerky Turkey Jerky for those who know what they want, and want a lot!

Another: Pecan Honey Butter. Made with lots of honey, soy-rich margarine and chopped pecans, our creamy Pecan Honey Butter adds unique flavoring and savory sweetness to breads, hot cereal, pancakes and more!

See why it’s an uneasy inclusion? It isn’t bad. It’s just words.

And that’s it for this season. 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 a tireless Chicago Cubs fan, I’ll sigh once again… there’s always next year.


Herschell Gordon Lewis is the principal of Lewis Enterprises (herschellgordonlewis.com.) in Fort Lauderdale, FL. Author of 31 books, including On the Art of Writing Copy and the just-published Creative Rules for the 21st Century, he writes copy for and consults with clients worldwide.