Word-watching for fun and profit

May 01, 2008 9:30 PM  By

As recently as a generation ago, catalogs could survive by basing their appeal on a combination of traditional image, buyer loyalty, and breadth of selection. But hey, this is the Internet era, and a flood of competition is the name of the game rather than a novelty as it was when our dads ran catalog companies.

So what? So this: Word-power not only is a major key. It can be the major key.

Have and other misused words

In those antediluvian times, no one would bat an artificially-curled eyelash at a description for a health product that began, “Do you have…”

Analyze: “Have” means possession. The word denotes a positive, not a negative. But in a current catalog, “Do you have an overactive bladder?” can generate guffaws: “No, but I can order one for you.”

“Have” is a simple word, and nobody will be fired for using it. I suggest to those who see no problem with “Do you have an overactive bladder?” that “Constantly running to the bathroom?” or the more direct (and not even considered a generation ago) “Urinating too frequently?” are sitting there on the keyboard, waiting to be typed.

The contemporary-alert catalog copywriter also knows the difference, however minuscule, between “Constantly running to the bathroom?” and “Are you constantly running to the bathroom?”

Stare at the two, rating them as first sentences of a copy-block. If the choice is obvious, welcome to the 2008/2009 catalog copy world.

Creating a state of mind

One of the more sophisticated travel catalogs takes creative risks beyond the scope of more pedestrian competitors. The heading, for a description of an extended tour of India that seizes six slim-jim pages and prices out well above $10,000 per person: “The race for the 21st century is on.”

Here’s the first line of descriptive copy: “Henry Luce dubbed the 20th century ‘The American Century.’ Who will win the contest for the 21st?”

Now, that’s guts. I have no information as to whether this oblique approach drew its intended volume of upscale response. I — and, I assume, you — probably would have taken a more direct, grab-with-unique-benefit approach.

I’m guessing that this catalog is positioning itself against such standard copy, and if the lyrical, sometimes opaque descriptions brought response from those who regard our copy as pedestrian without damaging response from those who don’t regard our copy as pedestrian, I salute that creative team.

Earlier in this diatribe I used the phrase “contemporary-alert copywriter.” Sadly, or happily, we run on tracks. Awareness of the competitive marketplace determines whether our tracks end at Grand Central Station or a siding in an untended railyard.

So, also sadly or happily, successful — no, make that safe — catalog copy right now, today, this year, mailed or online, crashes through readers’ latter-day apathy and indifference, demanding positive attention.

An example of the dynamic approach is a catalog whose mantra on the front cover is “Adding Everyday Comfort to Your Life!” … enhanced by “SAVE up to 70%.” (Why initial caps for that nondescript slogan?)

Benefit leaps from every heading in the 76-page catalog. An example, all five items from a single page:

“An Alarm Clock That Talks!”

“Prevent Costly Plumbing Repairs”

“Food Cubers Make Portion Control Easy – No Scales”

“Live a Happy, Healthy Life Living with Diabetes”

“Giant Print Address Book”

Oh, sure, we can attack not only the initial caps but also the Live-Life-Living heading. But attacks such as ours, on professional grounds, are of no consequence in a heavyweight consumer-driven arena.

So is the jury still out on what type of copy has the best competitive chance in the waning days of the 21st century’s first decade?

It depends on who the members of that jury are. As an alternate juror, my vote when judging 2008 catalogs that still depend on the casual use of words that didn’t inflict major damage on our fathers’ catalogs: Guilty by reason of insanity.


Herschell Gordon Lewis is the principal of Lewis Enterprises in Pompano Beach, FL, and author of 31 books, including Catalog Copy That Sizzles, Effective E-Mail Marketing, and the just-published Creative Rules for the 21st Century. Web address is herschellgordonlewis.com.