Herschell Gordon Lewis: The Best and Worst in Copy 2011


This has been an annual chore for a lot of years.

Never has choosing been so difficult. Merchants are becoming both wily and careful, and “schlock” has gone the way of the dodo bird. Those catalogs that have become feeder-mechanisms for their web counterparts seem to have better copy than they did when they were stand-alones.

And online catalogs sometimes don’t qualify for best or worst because their formats aren’t catalog-ish. They admit a visitor to a side door, and as far as that visitor is concerned it’s the only door. So if I’m looking for shoes but might be persuaded by sparkling shirt copy, I’ll never see the shirts unless I sneak out and re-enter through another doorway.

The catalog world looks healthy, though. And if you’re a copywriter looking for defective copy so you can make a pitch for rewrites, this is a tough year. “Best” and “worst” are relative, and the dividing line is wavy and murky.

OK, that’s one disclaimer. Another is even more obvious — I don’t see every catalog every company ever prints. With those provisos at hand, let’s take a look — and I’ll tell you before you tell me: These are just one guy’s opinions.

Best, No. 1:

This catalog could serve as a textbook for those writers who want to compare their output with the upper level. Products aren’t ordinary, and a “President’s note,” increasingly rare in the web era, points out that “there’s not a single ‘copywriter’ amongst us.” Whoever you are, you have an admirer here.

Note how the copy sets, plants and exploits its intended mood. A heading, “Stiffness and Pain Got You Down?” (note also how initial caps damage both mood and impact) leads to a single-paragraph copy block that in most catalogs would be considered too long. Just the beginning:

“Last spring, I decided to take up tennis. With the unbridled enthusiasm of an older Maria Sharapova (much older), I found my calling — at least at first. I soon made some new friends: an acupuncturist, physical therapist, and chiropractor. I’d have to say my ‘best’ new friend is Dr. Singha and his indispensable Mustard Rub….”

Best, no. 2:

Here’s a catalog whose ebullience and “grabber” benefit-laden copy hits home in both the printed and web versions. Benefits and bargains are specific, not generalized, and that has to generate the buying impulse. After just looking at the description of a digital music keyboard, I had to yank my hand back from the phone.

Note the way headlines combine uniqueness with benefit:

“Even during a storm, you can enjoy glare-free, bright ‘sunlight’ everyday!” (Hey, copywriter, it’s “every day,” but I’m still including it.)

“The same quality classic leather coat you’ve seen in department stores. The difference? The price!”

“Tee off with this nitrogen powered driver risk-free for 60 days. If it doesn’t add 10-20 yards to your drives, we’ll buy it back!”

If you haven’t seen this catalog, you’ll have to take my word that text reinforces the headline claims. This is disciplined, psychologically-apt 21st century copywriting.

Best, no. 3:

This catalog understands the benefit of benefits. Every heading declares “Benefit” loudly and clearly. Just a few examples, which competitors whose sales are declining might inspect and duplicate:

“You Won’t Have to Squint to See the Time”…“Guide Your Head & Neck Into Perfect Alignment”…“Wind Up Loose Cords”…“Keep Your Private Info Private!”…“Instantly Alarm 8 Windows or Doors.”

Oh, yes, this catalog still succumbs to the ancient initial caps technique and uses the obsolete ampersand. That it’s included anyway is a tribute to creativity, not to form.

Best, no. 4:

This one is dicey because a visitor has to get past the home page to appreciate the superior copy. I’m cheating a bit, because the printed catalog (it’s a U.K. import, so properly the word is “catalogue”) doesn’t make us wait to sample the quietly brilliant descriptions. But we’re in the year 2012, and we have to assume that many prospects never see the printed catalog.

Best, no. 5:

Here’s a catalog that proves with every issue — product doesn’t have to be hifalutin for copy to be superior.

Descriptions could be a textbook for combining benefit, clarity and bargain. That happy combination applies to a plethora of items priced below $10, as well as to the few items priced above $30.

Equally impressive is that this catalog has a heavy number of items on each page and yet doesn’t over-squeeze a description.

Enough happy talk. Let’s morph from Dr. Jekyll into Mr. Hyde and look at some catalogs that might (opinion) have had more octane in their copy.

Necessary disclaimer: Com-ments that don’t apply: Terrible.Unprofessional. Wrong. Schlocky. No, no, they’re all commercially acceptable. What downgrades them here is simply a comparison with the top contenders.



Some of the text had changed between my online visits, but the changes didn’t affect the lack of warmth or salesmanship. The key selling element was a 15% discount, with roadblocks added for no reason other than bookkeeping swamping rapport. Example: “Our best barstools at some of the best prices.” Some of? Then, immediately, “Discount will be taken at check out.” That’s turning ’em away early and often. Typical copy:
“ETHAN TRAY TABLE — Tray top lifts off for casual serving. Solid hardwood and oak veneers with casters. Assembly required. Old World Brown (featured), Ivory, or Rubbed Black. 26½” H × 18″ Diam … and that’s it.

Worst, no. 2: CHICO’S

Including this catalog may be unfair, because copy is next to nonexistent. Hey, though, it’s a competitive world out there, and even though the prices may be reasonable, a catalog should aim for impulse buys. Does this typical description do that? Heading — “Retro Rays Cardigan $129.” Total copy — “Chevron jacquard cotton/acrylic. Hand wash. Imported.” Except for the SKU number, that’s it.

Worst, no. 3: LA TIENDA

I’m always available to sample food from Spain. That is, almost always, because this typical description leaves me far from the frying pan. Heading: ‘DUO OF SLICED JAMÓN IBÉRICO & JAMÓN IBÉRICO DE BELLOTA.” Text:
“Enjoy two of the finest dry-cured Iberico hams in the world. Jamon Iberico is made from native black pigs that eat grain and corn. Jamon Iberico de Bellota comes from free-range Iberico pigs that are acorn (bellota) fed. Both have intense flavor and are sliced paper thin.”

Oink, oink.

Worst, no. 4:

To explain the shortcomings of the copy in this catalog, let’s lean on a basic rule of force-communication: Specifics outpull generalizations.

Under the heading “MEDURI GRANOLA DELIGHTS” and the subhead “Raising the bar on moist treats,” copy begins:


“Fine ingredients from China to France to the Pacific Northwest are brought together to create an extraordinary treat unlike ordinary “granola bars.” Moist and rich, these Delights almost melt in your mouth.”

For “Strawberry-Rhubard Bites,” copy begins: “It’s the best of both worlds. Two distinct flavors artfully blended together in small batches create a magical new one.”

None of these is terrible. But to repeat: Specifics outpull generalizations.

Worst, no. 5:

The cover of the printed version has as the announced theme, “smart art for walls.” That covers the “Folk-art Mermaids” shown on the cover, but almost none of the other inclusions, ranging from loungewear to eyeglasses. No major problem there, and copy is generally warm. What brings copy down several notches is the unusual number of self-contradicting descriptions. Example,
“‘Gossip’ Retro-Style Readers” (reading glasses): “Our stylish cherry-red reading glasses resemble high-end designer frames. Break-resistant, flexible spring hinges. Polycarbonate lenses. Hard case included. Please specify magnification: 1.5, 2.0, or 2.5.”

That’s the total description. What, pray tell, elaborates on “Retro-Style,” especially when the text begins, “Our stylish…”? Why are these called “Gossip”?

The online catalog presents a different puzzle. On the home page is a box with this wording: “Create a collection that expresses your personality! See all Collectible Boxes.” Click and here is a huge assortment of attractive boxes, ranging from the Eiffel Tower to a bunny. Attractive and elegant, but “expresses your personality” has led us to think we’d encounter something else.

And that’s it for this season.

Want to be competitive in the Internet Era? Then don’t think in seller terms — what it is — and instead think in sellee terms — what it will do for me.

This is no time for a catalog copywriter to show off his or her huge vocabulary or personality. We either tell a reader or web visitor, “You should have this, and here’s why” — or we’re uncompetitive.

Yep. It’s as simple as that.

Herschell Gordon Lewis, www.herschellgordonlewis.com, is the principal of Lewis Enterprises, Pompano Beach, Florida. Author of 32 books. He writes copy for and consults with clients worldwide.

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