Sell the Sizzle with Clarity

It’s been considerably more than 70 years since supersalesman Elmer Wheeler published his book, Tested Sentences that Sell, which included the immortal “Don’t sell the steak, sell the sizzle.”

Old Elmer would be pleased that so many catalogers have, in a post-millennial outburst of brutal competition, recognized the value of his potent seven-word imperative.

Here’s a catalog whose tagline on both the cover of the printed version and the home page of the Web version is, “Unique Items At Affordable Prices.” That’s an “ugh,” but luckily for the reader who ventures beyond that cliché, the descriptions in this book are pure Elmer Wheeler.

Did you see the sizzle? Okay, look for the key words here, in a small-space description. The heading: “‘POWER’ Tape Repairs Everything!” The description is relentless:

“Miracle ‘Power’ Tape fixes virtually anything – it even works under water! It easily stands up to heat, water, pressure and stress, forming a permanent bond in 24 hours. Made of stretchy, self-fusing silicone rubber. It can even stretch to 3 times its length. 10 ft. roll.”

Suppose the copywriter had used “10 ft. roll” as the key. Suppose that Wheeler word “easily” hadn’t been there. Would you have thought to include that grabber, or would you have written the standard but infinitely less motivational “It stands up to heat, water, pressure and stress”?

You know, I hope, the overriding mandate for all copy, whether catalog, direct mail, e-mail or blog: The Clarity Commandment. When you choose words and phrases for force-communication, clarity is paramount. Don’t let any other component of the communications mix interfere with it.

In our enthusiasm for creating uniqueness, sometimes we lapse into poetry or in-talk, or we pick up phraseology that may make sense within the office but is gobbledygook to outsiders. Or we go just one step beyond clarity — not a cardinal sin, but not a message that’s quickly and clearly understood.

Here’s a “Locket Charm Bracelet.” The headline: “Celebrate the treasures of her heart.” Body copy explains that the lockets attached to this chain “allow you to display photos and keepsakes on the red bronze double cable chain interwoven with Czech glass beading.”

What might you have headed this description? If you asked some outsiders for their opinions of “Celebrate the treasures of her heart,” you probably would get both positive and negative comments. Meistersinger-copywriters might question “allow you” and maybe “interwoven with.” Clarity becomes a factor when uncertainty of meaning is a factor.

The Web version of this same catalog shows extraordinary attention to word use. In its “sale” section, for a serving tray to which many writers might have given only perfunctory attention, we have this textual beginning:

“This serving tray invites you to embrace the good life. Exuberant figures dance across its 19.5“ ×13“ surface, making it a striking accessory to your table.”

It’s mid-2010. Simplicity serves. Those who nostalgically yearn for the kinder, gentler times of the 20th century are a slowly vanishing species. That they didn’t emerge from weaning with a command of computer terminology and social media, and anticipating iPods and iPads, is the penalty of anticipatory obsolescence. For us, as professional communicators, this syndrome also is a warning signal — clarity is hog-tied to simplicity.

So with the obvious exception of specialty catalogs, a heading and copy block that doesn’t require analysis is more likely to achieve its goal — temporary command of the reader’s attention — than is a more complex word structure.

A women’s apparel catalog caters to both the traditional and the contemporary by using classic and basic terminology to describe a shirt. The heading: “A simple explanation.” Body copy begins: “Abstract paintings may require a scholar’s translation but this abstract top can be summed up in a single word: terrific.” What follows are specifics, ending with “Slightly shaped.”

Demographic separation seems to be on a steadily declining slope. The alert cataloger — and the alert catalog copywriter — don’t allow descriptions to run on tracks that may have been laid generations ago.

Come to think of it, chances are the alert catalog copywriter doesn’t allow himself or herself to use the dangerous word “allow.”

Herschell Gordon Lewis is the principal of Lewis Enterprises ( in Pompano Beach, FL.