Catalog Copy: Gold and Silver ACA Winners–24K and Sterling?

How can one attack copy in a travel catalog whose typical descriptions begin like this: “THE GLORIES OF RAJASTHAN — princely fortresses rising out of barren plains, warrior clans who fought chivalrous battles with jewel-encrusted swords, airy palaces of marble and onyx, regal women swathed in brilliant reds and yellows who seem to have stepped straight out of historic miniature paintings.”

Easy answer: Except for an uninitiated puzzling over “miniature,” you don’t. In this year’s Annual Catalog Awards, the Wilderness Travel catalog was not only a Gold Award winner in the wholesale/dealer category and winner of a Gold I.Merchant Award for best Website in the consumer information and services category; it picked up two Silver Awards, one in the travel category and one in the consumer specialty group. This lavish perfect-bound catalog really isn’t a catalog; it’s a volume, one any recipient reads in splendid sips the way one would sample fine wines. What a torrid pace to set for anyone analyzing Gold winner copy!

Therein lies a problem when gauging catalogs on a single level. Wilderness Travel has two edges over some of the Gold winners in other categories, such as apparel: First, a lyrical approach is a plus, not a minus, because “image” isn’t physical. Second, the amount of space that copy commands makes possible more poetic and touchstone-laden descriptions than ever could be possible in product catalogs with four to eight items on a single page.

So fairness demands gear-switching as we compare.

Harry and David

Harry and David won Gold Awards in both the food and gifts under $75 categories. It also won the Catalog of the Year Award. In the consumer soft goods I.Merchant category its Website won a Silver. If you wonder why the same catalog deserves a Gold in one area and a Silver in another, the explanations may be twofold: effectiveness within that specific category and different judges.

For us, evaluating copy only, the judging is easier. Copy is copy, aimed at the targeted distribution of a catalog.

As is true of so many catalogs, this one has some superb copy and some workmanlike copy. Copy blocks have a heading, a subhead, and text — no bullet copy.

Strangely, the most attackable copy is the occasional nondescript subhead. An example, heading and subhead:

Spring Bulb Garden
Soft pastel blooms provide a peaceful
harmony of color, one right after another
Hmmm. Here’s another:
Everlasting Rose Wreath
Color and texture, beautifully
preserved to enjoy for
seasons to come

Now, don’t cloud up and thunder all over me for these comments about a catalog whose iconic image is legendary. Awards judges consider copy as just one factor, together with design, layout, photography, production, and paper. We, here, play a one-string fiddle. Was it the copywriter who decided to make the strange line breaks? The layout allowed ample space for more logical reading coherence:

Color and texture,
beautifully preserved to enjoy
for seasons to come

That covers the line break. But what about “for seasons to come”? Might the word “many” enhance the concept? And is “preserved” a positive or a negative word in this usage?


Cottura’s lavish catalog was a Silver Award winner in the gifts over $75 category. Some of the type, reversed through full color tints of various hues, isn’t easy to read.

But in this catalog, copy isn’t king. A typical description:

Single Tile Madonna on Wood
(14″H, 9″D) $125

Where copy plays a part is in “decks” that initiate most two-page spreads whose product copy is limited to name and price. An example, for a spread headed “Le Delizie del Giardino — The Delights of the Garden”:

Celebrate the joys of gardening with beautiful planters for your treasured plantings. Brighten your home and add brilliance to your garden with our sturdy ceramic planters. Bold designs bloom in a celebration of color. Both delicate for indoor décor and durable for outdoor use.

Serviceable, but except for “Bold designs bloom in a celebration of color,” not inspirational.


Zingerman’s won the Silver Award in the food category. The easy conversational copy style is a pleasant respite from the heavily adjectival and occasionally pompous rhetoric that have some catalogs straining.

Much of the copy is first person, and an inside-the-cover note defangs any questions with this affable notice:

Who’s the ‘i’ talking?
Most of our copy is written by the same nice guy who writes the Zingerman’s News (p. 24), Zingerman’s Guides to Good Vinegar & Olive Oil (p. 32), and has been the guiding tastebud for 18 years, Ari Weinzweig. His partner in rhyme is Mo Frechette, whose voice merges with Ari’s in many areas of the catalog

Uh … “partner in rhyme”? Copy isn’t rhymed. And “many areas of the catalog” is too loose an encomium to have any effect. But here is a catalog whose copy actually smiles. One example:

Sunrise Secrets
Lemon poppyseed coffeecake
I think this is probably the most underrated pastry we make. And it’s kind of unknown: the secret snack of Zingerman’s regular customers who happily bypass bagels and muffins for a slice. It’s made with fresh lemon juice, lemon oil, loads of real butter, real vanilla and a veritable passel of Dutch poppyseeds. With none of the artificial aftertaste that most lemon-flavored pastries have, it tastes like biting into a bit of good morning: sunny, rich, delicious

Everybody enjoys a catalog that’s pleasant to read. If the pleasantry is accompanied by a buying impulse, it’s frosting on the coffee cake.

Oriac Design

Oriac won the only Annual Catalog Award in the new business catalog category. It was a Silver. Did copy play a positive or negative role in determining the Award? Maybe. Here is a sample product description, in its entirety:

Nomos is a table for those with discriminating taste. Its clean, contemporary style enhances any décor. Its outstanding workmanship fulfills your highest demand. The unique tubular chrome frame adjusts the table height to 26 or 28 inches.

Except for the last sentence, does this copy tell us anything about the table or justify its price (just below $5,000)? Twenty-first-century upscale catalog copy has scooted well beyond marching-in-place phrases such as “for those with discriminating taste” and “enhances any décor” and “outstanding workmanship” and “fulfills your highest demand.”

Some of the copy in this catalog requires reinterpretation. Description of a side chair called Aluminum Chair begins: “The design of the Aluminum Chair is clear and transparent, its construction is distinctly seen.” We think we understand…but we can’t be certain.

Specify Brady

Brady is a huge catalog, co-Silver winner in the industrial supplies category (no Gold awarded here). Its 264 pages are three-hole punched, both logical and useful for a catalog whose catchphrase is “solutions for safety and facility identification.”

Copy is (properly) limited to short product description in most instances. But text does exist, and it’s to the point, no-nonsense, no-time-wasted, and still able to include “you” references. Example, for HEET:

Designed for use in the most severe environments, this tag construction features overlaminated polyester label graphics permanently bonded to a stainless steel baseplate. You have complete flexibility in tag graphics design. Large type, small type, bold type, bar codes, valve numbers, operating instructions, etc. can all be included in your tag text at no extra cost. Optional protective tag covers are available to assure readability even when covered with paint.

It’s so clear and specific we forgive use of the catalog copy no-no, “etc.”


Stoner shared the industrial supplies Award with Brady. It’s a thinner catalog — just 24 pages — written and laid out in consumer style, with giant product photos and big type and tint blocks and a profusion of exclamation points.

Good positioning? In this competitor-loaded category, I’d say yes.

The president’s letter is something of a cliché, hitting the expected buttons. Just the beginning:

When you call Stoner, you get more than FACTORY DIRECT cleaners, lubes, & protectorants…you get an entire team dedicated to exceeding your expectations when it comes to saving time, increasing your productivity, and improving the quality of your work.

Yeah, it’s ho-hum. But the actual product descriptions are dynamic:

Clean it with XENIT!
With XENIT (zee-nit), you’ll never again be frustrated trying to remove tough gunk and grime. XENIT removes tacky, grimy dirt so well, you can simply “wipe it away.” XENIT quickly removes labels, decals, and adhesives from glass, wood, vinyl, and metals. It easily removes chewing gum from carpet and upholstery; shoescuffs from vinyl and wood flooring; and greasy dirt from fabrics and upholstery. If you have a sticky, grimy mess, Clean it with XENIT!

Oh, yes, the description has the kind of mildly sophomoric rah-rah ending you’d expect in radio copy. But here we have a catalog whose copy is explicit and enthusiastic, in sync with layout.

Wait till next year!

Every year the overall quality of catalog entries seems to improve. More impressively for the industry, every year some newcomers carve a solid niche for themselves. As we move deeper into the 21st century, with Web “get to the point” copy affecting print catalogs as well, unquestionably we’ll see less and less throwaway copy…and more and more professionalism on all levels, Award winner or not.

Herschell Gordon Lewis is the principal of Lewis Enterprises in Fort Lauderdale, FL. Author of 24 books, including Catalog Copy That Sizzles and Selling on the Net, he writes copy for and consults with clients worldwide.

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