Catalog Copy: The Annual Best and Worst Catalog Copy

Maybe it’s unpatriotic to single out catalogs for criticism. After all, I don’t want to be the Bill Maher of the catalog industry. And I have to point out: These are one person’s opinions, and I can’t make any claim of completeness since neither I nor anyone I know has seen every catalog issued in the past year.

But…my selecting the year’s best and worst catalog copy has become an annual celebration, a way to start the new year with champagne or vinegar. And with space limitations being severe, I’d better cut to the chase.

Best, no. 1: The Baker’s Catalogue

What’s most impressive about this catalog isn’t its production. In fact, compared with many, it might be regarded as underproduced. But we’re concerned with copy. This copy not only is elegant; it is absolute in its specificity and yet reflects a love for whatever the copywriter is describing. And that love becomes contagious.

Take a look at this typical product description:

A Simple Solution for Gentle Cooking
Do away with that tippy, splashing — ahem, “double boiler” — you’ve fashioned out of two saucepans, and try our professional-gauge, 18/10 stainless steel Double Boiler. The 1-quart top pan, holding your delicate custard, hollandaise, or slowly melting chocolate, nests securely in the bottom pan….

Every heading and every line somehow sells without lapsing into one of the sloughs of despond — stridency or flatness.

Best, no. 2: Restoration Hardware

Maybe it’s my own nostalgic impulse, despite the current disdain for the past (“Nostalgia ain’t what it used to be”), but copy in this catalog consistently strikes a chord of kinder, gentler times…even when the product is 100% contemporary. One reacts to this copy the way we’d react to a friend describing a product he or she has discovered and loved. Generating that kind of response in these lean, mean times isn’t easy. Here’s one example:

Gonzo Stain Remover
The same scientist who invented the Gonzo Wonder Sponge tinkered like mad to come up with the ultimate, the finest, the best stain remover ever made. Gonzo removes all the standard stuff and a host of other embellishments too yucky to discuss

Even though my standard pitch is “specifics outpull generalizations,” I have to salute not only whoever wrote that last sentence but also whoever let it stand.

Best, No. 3: Professional Cutlery Direct

If you’re asking what this catalog is doing on a “best five” list, you haven’t read its copy. Here’s one description that falters just a tad in its mildly “blah” heading but then grabs and shakes the reader as few copy blocks can. (I’ll reprint just the beginning of the description.)

Sunzlauer Handpainted Stoneware.
Practical. Versatile. Beautiful.
When our signature oval baker flew off the shelves this holiday season, we were not surprised. This stoneware, which originated as Polish folk art in the early 1800s, is immensely practical. Its unique glaze provides wonderful properties. Foods release easily with little or no oil. The glaze makes the mixing bowl rugged enough to use with a hand-held electric mixer. It makes the stoneware resilient enough to allow you to cut right into them with a knife

The reader has confidence in copy written by someone who seems to have enjoyed actual use of whatever he or she is describing.

Best, no. 4: Coldwater Creek

I don’t know of any other catalog that can match Coldwater Creek’s first lines of copy. Just a few of the headings and first lines:

Isn’t it romantic?
Great white tents range like castles across the manicured lawn.
Step ahead of the crowd
The fashion wheel’s circling ’round again: here at last, the pretty, flirty style you love.
Raleigh to Bali in a zip
Today, brunch at a Carolina bistro — bamboo-bordered patio; fountain and lively conversation flowing

Coldwater Creek is loaded with neat bonbons such as these. And I admit I’m influenced by its intelligently resisting that pre-21st-century technique of caps/lowercase in headings.

Best, no. 5: Cyberguys!

What a pleasure to see a catalog of computer equipment whose copy doesn’t eliminate us nongeeks. Although the principal targets are resellers and business and industrial buyers, this catalog hasn’t slipped into jargon, unexplained acronyms, and in-talk that invariably leads to smugness.

Nothing spectacular here. Copy is never brilliant, but neither is it ever unclear. And visualize three pages of keyboards — 17 keyboards in all, the benefits of each explained without impinging on the others. That’s meeting a major copywriting challenge. I’ll admit, it’s the first time I’ve ever seen “mouse” used as a verb, but by now we all are used to computerese noun/verb interchange.

So much for the goodies. Now, a much more difficult chore: justifying choices of the five worst.

Worst, no. 1: Wine & All That Jazz

Few of us can claim to be accomplished oenophiles. But most who can read a restaurant menu know the difference between Opus One and jug Gallo.

Apparently whoever writes this catalog’s copy doesn’t. Some of the descriptions don’t match the illustrations. For example, a photo shows a wine funnel and mesh insert. Copy doesn’t mention the insert. Included or not? Who knows? A beverage tub is “carefully shaped metal.” Carefully shaped? Huh? Here’s a corkscrew with a little blade to cut the cover around the cork. Copy says, “To insure flawless performance, all of the amenities of the original black horn corkscrew have been included.” What amenities? Little stuff like this adds up to reader frustration.

Worst, no. 2: National Geographic Society

Criticizing National Geographic is like taking a swipe at God, motherhood, and Abraham Lincoln. But hey, guys, get back on track. Some of your descriptions are so bland the reader thinks English is your second language. You can’t seriously regard “These lightweight binoculars will provide clear, close-up views on your adventures” as a sales-worthy first line of copy. (Parenthetical note to all: Please search and destroy the word “provides” from all catalog copy.) The catalog mercilessly overuses “features” as a verb and annoyingly contracts “included” to “incl,” even though plenty of space is available.

I’m picky because like any veteran reader of the organization’s magazine, I’ve come to expect image-rich writing.

Worst, no. 3: War Timers

Everybody who knows me is aware of my love for wristwatches. So I greeted this one, a strange catalog of watches whose provenance stems from military use, with enthusiasm. That enthusiasm waned with the very first line of descriptive copy:

Founded in 1927, Tutima was among the first watchmakers to reopen in Germany’s famed Glashütte region after the end of WWI.

Now, hold it, guys. World War I ended in 1918. So how could a watchmaker reopen when it wasn’t founded until nine years later?

A major deficiency of this catalog is that it lacks any description of what it is — no president’s letter, no statement of purpose. It simply lists a bunch of watches, priced from the low hundreds to upward of $5,000, never explaining why the $5,200 watch is worth more than the $399 watch.

Worst, no. 4: Casual Living

I didn’t want to include Casual Living in this listing, because some of the descriptions are critic-proof. But others are as flat and dry as a desert. First sentence for a jacket: “Brilliant color and eye catching detail gives this jacket a style all its own.” Here’s a plaque labeled “Words to live by.” On the plaque: “Live well. Love much. Laugh often.” Now, who can quarrel with that? But we certainly can quarrel with this total description (as a personal exercise, you might rewrite it, using the same number of words):

Genuine words are simply a recipe for the good life. Lightweight molded foam plaque is finished to look like sculpted stone.

If you don’t cringe at “Genuine words are simply a recipe for the good life” or “finished to look like,” you aren’t of our world.

Worst, no. 5 (tie): Seventh Avenue and Linen Source

I like the breadth of product in Seventh Avenue. I don’t like the writers’ (I assume it has more than one) proclivity for starting descriptions with indirect parenthetical clauses: “Based on the work of artist Nicky Boehme, this exquisite wall hanging captures…” “With handy features on both sides, this handsome cabinet table is designed to…” “Beautifully crafted, this handsome entryway piece…” “Crafted from solid wood with cherry finish, they’re perfect for…” You get the idea.

Linen Source operates in one of the most competitive of all catalog ambiences. So copy is gauged on a comparative level, and descriptions such as “Each of these elegant crewel-stitched coverlets is made by hand, rendering each unique and original” don’t hack it. It’s no surprise that copy leans heavily on “features” as a verb: “Handmade rug features 100% wool chainstitch embroidery with 100% cotton backing.” A different product line might not demand romance. Bedding does, if only because catalogs with parallel product lines offer more-inviting descriptions.

And that’s the batch for this year. If I embraced you, or if I cursed you, my explanation is the same: I’m judging copy only, and I’m not the most dispassionate commentator. Too, I undoubtedly didn’t see a host of other catalogs, better or worse.

Let’s see whether these positions hold until next January.

Herschell Gordon Lewis is the principal of Lewis Enterprises in Fort Lauderdale, FL. Author of 25 books, including Catalog Copy That Sizzles and the recently published Marketing Mayhem, he writes copy for and consults with clients worldwide.

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