Do cover designers even look inside?

Here’s where I irritate even more catalogers than I usually do. I have three questions for catalog creative teams: 1) What does your catalog cover say about you? 2) What do you want it to say? 3) Are your answers to the first two questions the same? Prompting these questions was a plethora of spring/summer catalogs with elegant photographs of flowers on the front cover. Of the batch in my hand, only one catalog with floral beauty on its cover sells flowers.

OK, mood is significant. But significance counts only when it has as its senior partner relevance. And for these catalogs, whoever wrote copy for the cover either was excluded from discussions of what would be on the cover or else neither knows nor cares that without relevance, mood loses its sales power.

Suppose a half-dozen catalogs appear on your desk or coffee table. The covers are nearly identical. You probably would choose one at random for opening.

Sorry. Those odds aren’t favorable enough in a competitive printed-catalog universe.

One catalog has as its cover copy: “Charisma bedding is back!” As revelatory as that disclosure is, tying it to a full-bleed photo of an orchid is a strain. Another catalog has as its cover copy: “Take $25 off your order of $100 or more.” Well, thanks, but are you selling the flowers shown on your cover? Oh, you’re selling garments? What a surprise.

Here’s a catalog whose cover copy says, “Save 10% on your entire order!” And the cover is split with four different photographs of flowers. Well, how about that — this one really is a flower catalog.

Are we going for mood? Individuality? It’s summertime, so vendors whose catalogs deal with fashion or travel or sports automatically opt for outdoor scenes. Here’s a major catalog whose cover shows a pretty girl reclining on a bench, with a lake scene in the background. Copy: “Look inside for extended sizes — more petites & women’s.” A diagonal snipe at the bottom: “FREE $50 savings card with your $200 order! Details on back cover.”

What grabbed my attention (you may agree, or you may think I’m nit-picking) was the ampersand. The “&” symbol is totally out of place in feminine-aimed copy. For that matter, except for the name on a law firm door, the ampersand is a liability in communication.

Once grabbed, my attention shifted to the nonrelationship between photograph and copy. Should such a relationship exist? This catalog doesn’t think so.

The cover of another major catalog is an art rendering of children playing on a beach. Copy: “Look inside for over 175 products under $30.” What if, instead of a generic claim, the cover showed or at least mentioned one or two of those products, with page numbers? And don’t we experience a mild recoil at the imageless word “products”?

In the catalog stack, except for the logos, I’m looking at a surprising number of catalogs with parallel cover treatment. Similarity, based on the semi-cliché of seasonal image, is a mixed blessing.

Is individuality still a plus factor, as it was for printed catalogs half a generation ago? I’ll go beyond that: It’s more of a plus factor, because catalogs compete as never before, not only with upstarts and Wal-Mart and the Web, but often with their own retail operations.

That’s why I admire a jolly catalog such as Shindigz, issued by Stumps (which bills itself as the world’s largest party superstore). I have no idea whether or not Stumps actually is the world’s largest party superstore, but I certainly do have an idea about this catalog. Even though the only cover copy is “Hats Off to Spring!” the photographs are of party gear and costumes. Now, suppose the photo had been a girl lounging on a lakefront bench. Would I — or anyone — have opened the catalog, if at all, with prefabricated enthusiasm?

I’ll extend that opinion to Get Organized, a catalog that has the irresistible (to the proletariat) “As seen on TV” icon next to a pet dog climbing a doggy step. And what’s the copy adjacent to the photo? “Doggy Steps…Sale! $29.98. See back cover.” I don’t yet need a doggy step, but from the title of the catalog and the line at the bottom, “Just reduced! New lower prices inside!” I can assume other types of merchandise exist.

The ultimate question: Sell on the cover? Would Time or The National Inquirer or a freestanding insert for The Home Depot have pretty flowers as the cover illustration? Not if they wanted to sell magazines or merchandise.

“Arts gratia artis” may work for Metro-Goldwyn Mayer…although purists suggest proper Latin grammar would be “Ars artis gratia.” For catalogs, art for the sake of art is a risky business. Our targets have their forefingers on the mouse when they’re online. They have a nervous mental middle finger ready to aim at our catalog if, at first sight, they don’t sense something, anything, beneficial to them.

I’ll go a step beyond. I’m solidly in the corner of the computer catalogs…and Dr. Leonard’s…and Heartland…and Healthy Living. They sell on the cover. We may not buy what’s on the cover, but anyone, anywhere, any time, is more likely to buy when exposed to an offer.

See? I told you I’d irritate you. And I certainly don’t want to disappoint.

Herschell Gordon Lewis is the principal of Lewis Enterprises in Fort Lauderdale, FL. Author of 29 books, including Catalog Copy That Sizzles and Effective E-Mail Marketing, he writes copy for and consults with clients worldwide.

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