Catalog Copy: A Tilley Hat Is a Tilley Hat. Or Is It?

The heading on a catalog description of the famous Tilley Hat: ELEPHANT EATS TILLEY HAT 3 TIMES! What follows is “This is a true story. Michael Hackenberger, director of the Bowmanville Zoo in Ontario, used to train elephants….” Effective? Well, it certainly is startling. Having experienced close up the results of an elephant’s gastrointestinal system, I’m impressed by the hat’s indestructible quality but uneasy about the totality of the washing machine’s ability to cope with the output.

A competing catalog has this heading:

“My hat is the best, most practical outdoor hat in the world.” — Alex Tilley

Copy begins: “Mr. Tilley’s hat has become a legend all over the world. Made in Canada of strong, soft, pre-shrunk cotton duck….” And on goes a no-nonsense description that includes all pertinent details but excludes elephants.

Okay, assuming the price is identical (which it is), which of these descriptions would be most likely to jump-start the buying impulse?

I hope your answer is “That depends on the demographic of the target group.” As it turns out, both descriptions match their target groups. The first catalog has Outward Bound overtones; the second is more sedate. So each description, assuming database and list people have their wits about them, is a proper match to the catalog reader.

Does it have to be a headline?

What if the second version had included the elephant anecdote in the text? Sure. No problem, if given as an anecdotal example.

What if the first had initiated its sales argument with something from the second paragraph in its text? That’s a more complex question. The paragraph begins:

“Tilley hats are acknowledged as the best outdoor hats in the world. They come with a lifetime guarantee and will be replaced if they wear out, shrink or mildew. They float. They stay on in the wind with…”

See the difference? That second paragraph opening works as a headline only if the writer drops the first five words and condenses text. The example:

The best outdoor hats in the world. They come with a lifetime guarantee. They float. They stay on in the wind. They’re Tilley.

The point isn’t glorification of the Tilley Hat (I wonder whatever happened to mine). Rather, it’s the gigantic effect a heading has on reader attitude, including whether the reader ever gets to the body copy.

An ancient rule of force communication

As far back as the antediluvian year 1980, catalog copywriters benefited from this easy but elusive rule:

Describe absolute benefits before comparative benefits when the typical reader has no prior recognition of why he/she should be interested. Describe comparative benefits before absolute benefits when the typical reader is familiar with the type of product you’re selling.

I anticipate a “So what?” response. So this: The Rule becomes significant when educating the catalog reader to benefit.

So we conclude that Catalog 1 assumes many of its readers have a passing knowledge of Tilley hats and need only a dramatic reminder. Catalog 2 assumes its readers are as likely to respond negatively as they are to respond positively to a startling episode. (Our own analytical assumption is based on the notion that the same factual base was available to both catalogs.)

Let’s look at a more prosaic example — honeycomb shades.

Many potential buyers know what honeycomb shades are. Many others know what these shades are but not as “honeycomb.” And yet many others don’t know the term “honeycomb shades” at all. So both sides of the Rule might apply. One catalog has a generic heading: “Honeycomb Shades.”

Below this heading is a descriptive subhead:

The honeycombed cellular structure traps air between the layers of fabric and creates extra protection from summer heat and winter drafts.

Body copy describes easy-care polyester fabric, permanent pleats, filtered light privacy, and other features a potential buyer can evaluate.

A competing catalog has a huge “Honeycomb Shades” as a midpage headline. What follows is a textbook, a mixture of information and puffery:

Transform your rooms with captivating color and clean-lined style. Once you’ve seen our Honeycomb shades, you’ll decide your windows are the perfect place to start. These Smith+Noble shades are simple, elegant, and suited to any decor — and they’re also the most insulating, energy-efficient window treatments you can find!

I admit, my attitude toward the second catalog is colored by another part of the description which begins, “With it’s cellular structure…,” an apostrophe in “its” that any semicompetent proofreader should have caught (and that any semiliterate writer never should have excreted). But our point is the basic benefit of honeycomb shades. Does “Once you’ve seen our Honeycomb shades, you’ll decide your windows are the perfect place to start” add any clarity or information?

On behalf of that second catalog: I wasn’t kidding when I said the description is a textbook. It runs on for two more pages and will give you enough information about honeycomb shades to deliver a lecture.

What’s in a whisk?

Ball whisks have revolutionized the art of egg beating. The whisk is a metal handle holding a batch of ball-tipped wires. When one stirs around in a bowl of eggs, the balls move at different rates, and the result is better egg beating, I guess.

One catalog makes this point quickly. The heading:


Copy gets to the point:

Beating eggs takes just seconds. Beating liquids is effortless. And lumps quickly disappear — the secret is the ball-tip wires. As you whisk, the extra weight of the balls causes…

Another catalog takes a more wry approach. The heading:


Benefit and brightness aren’t mutually exclusive, as this description of the Slickrock Short exemplifies: “Made of 100% rugged, organic cotton twill, this short is as tough as the red rock terrain it’s named after. It feels more like linen, but we promise: it wears like iron. Garment-dyed for a perfect pre-shrunk fit….”

Copy is more provocative and more oblique. Here is the complete description:

How many recipes can you name that specify an exact quantity of air? None, right? But every time you use your whisk that’s what you’re adding to your recipe, and it’s an essential ingredient. This 14″ ball whisk is innovative and beautifully designed, but also highly effective at capturing air and introducing it into creams, batters, egg whites, and sauces. The 12 strands are in proper balance with the handle, making for easy usage.

That’s it. We haven’t a clue to the benefit of the ball whisk vs. a whisk without balls. And that last meaningless sentence seems to have been tacked on just to make the copy long enough. See the difference? The second description never gets beyond its archness and puffery.

Twenty-first-century catalog readers are analytical before they become enthusiastic. Satisfy their analysis, and enthusiasm surely will follow. Assume their enthusiasm without absolute demographic justification, and you’ll get neither analysis nor enthusiasm.

Herschell Gordon Lewis is the principal of Lewis Enterprises, Fort Lauderdale, FL. Author of 24 books, he writes copy for and consults with clients worldwide.

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