Here We Go Again! The Annual Best and Worst of Copy

I’ll admit cheerfully, up-front: This year I’m being very picky. If your print catalog has brilliant ideas, marred by nondescript descriptions, look out. If your Web catalog has elaborate art but endless and impenetrable text, look out. The Catalog Police are merciless in comparative judging. n And a complicating factor, especially on the Internet, is the difficulty of judging what’s copy and what isn’t. I not only have heard the plaintive “They left out a key element,” but I’ve experienced it. So the blame (or applause) may be heaped on the wrong team.

That’s most of the disclaimer. The rest of it is obvious to you, to me, and to everybody in this murderously competitive business: “Miserable” catalogs and catalog writing just don’t exist any more. To even dare compete, catalogers know they have to put a reasonable floor under creative competency. So being picky is the only separator between the best and the worst.

Well, almost the only one. When you have copy such as TechnoScout’s, you don’t have to worry about being lost in the milieu. And this reflects another problem in passing judgment: Only by a lucky accident did I see this brilliantly written catalog.

Rather than steal any more of my own thunder, let’s take a look at some irreverently chosen candidates for best copy.

These were almost among the top five:

* Sierra Woman has the best-written first sentences of all the catalogs I’ve plowed through to reach this year’s conclusions.

* Duluth Trading Co., whose eye-catching covers aren’t really relevant to the catalog’s content, has the wonderful knack of making commonplace items such as hammers and jumper cable bags seem glamorous.

* Oh, one more: I have nasty words for Dean & Deluca’s online catalog later in this diatribe, but the printed catalog is a gourmet’s delight.

These were close, and in a year less-rich with winners undoubtedly would have joined the exalted ranks of the top five.

Best, no. 1: Milepost Four Never heard of Milepost Four? You’ve missed some of the most consistently inspiring copy you’ll see in a catalog this year.

This gem of a “clothing for men & women” catalog could be a textbook of how to write fresh, conversational copy that never creeps across the border into overly clever territory and always stays within the bounds of full description and relevance.

Suppose you’re describing a baseball cap. Would you have come up with an opener to equal this?

A league of your own Every guy needs one: a cap that practically screams “Saturday.” It’s part of the weekend ritual. A symbol of identity. It has to be so comfortable and easy, you…

Or for shirts that seem ordinary until you read this description:

Flawless choice The character of some shirts is like the finest men’s fragrance. The real power is up close. Sure, this button-down sport shirt is good-looking enough from a distance, but as one moves in…

Or for the jacket I don’t need but am tempted to buy just because of these words:

World lightweight champ The totally indispensable jacket. You know, the one you toss on at a second’s notice. The one you toss in the back seat on a Saturday – just in case…

Enhancing my positive prejudice is the happy use of staccato style (which is not a grammatical error) and avoidance of initial caps in the headings.

Best, no. 2: TechnoScout I already betrayed my admiration for this one. I hadn’t seen it before, but the issue I’m looking at is “Volume VIII No. 8” (hey, what’s wrong with a month or season, guys?), so I guess it’s been around a while.

You’d have to look long and hard to find better headline copy. I’ll quote just a half-dozen headlines, because I’d use up the rest of this column quoting body copy:

* Why make a simple phone call when you can have a face-to-face reunion?

* High-resolution camera finds the fish…or the treasure!

* Speak…and your TV obeys.

* “My bike gathered dust in my garage…until I made it rider-friendly”

* What weighs less than 13 oz. but can carry you across thousands of feet across any terrain? [binoculars]

* It mows…you don’t.

Yeah, I know they’re ellipsis-crazy. But the typical reader won’t just read a headline and go on to the next headline. These are too powerful to allow hit-and-run headline skims.

Best, no. 3: Global Industrial Equipment You may regard this as a curious choice, because Global is 300-plus pages of industrial goods – shelving and service carts and body harnesses and stuff like that. What makes its copy superior is inclusion of benefit. For some types of products with dozens and dozens of options, Global reaches back to the good old Sears “Good, Better, Best” categorization.

Oh, sure, some of the copy is pedestrian. I cringed a bit over phrasing such as “…to suit your needs,” and I wish the phrase “Ideal for…” weren’t there about 200 times. But I recovered with use-oriented headings such as “Design your own WIRE TRUCK with these accessories.” No, I couldn’t find a single “clever” headline nor copy block in the 344-page catalog I flipped through, and yes, I would have been less impressed if such copy had sneaked into the mix.

Best, no. 4: Title Nine Sports Here is a catalog written by enthusiasts for enthusiasts. It’s a perfect match. Women who take active sports seriously can feel very much at home browsing through this catalog. Naturally it has sports bras, the current rage, along with outfits for every “I’m really into this” sports activity.

We’re talking copy here. Check this one out:

Cotton – Plain and Simple For those of us who have never felt the need for all the high-tech, gee-whiz features of the latest generation of synthetics, we present `”Cotton – Plain and Simple.” So take a gander at our new natural fibers page, we think you’ll like what you see.

Why do idols have clay feet? This copy block ends with two sentences tied together by a comma. It’s a tribute to bright communication, the knack of making each garment uniquely desirable, and straight-to-the-point professionalism – not haphazard grammar and punctuation – that brings this catalog into the hallowed group of five.

Best, no. 5: Vita-Mix If you’re looking for slickness, this is far, far from your ideal. If you’re looking for hyper-contemporary “with it” copy, the Vita-Mix catalog will wind up in your circular file. But how about specificity? How about solid backup to prove claims? Here is a catalog whose principal products – high-powered blenders/juicers/chopper-grinders – haven’t changed much for I don’t know how many years. (We have a working Vita-Mix we bought close to 20 years ago.)

Hyperbole abounds, but we don’t mind it because along with the claims are testimonials and comparatives justifying the claims. One dynamic sidebar:

PULP FICTION vs FACT Look at all this wonderful cancer-fighting, cholesterol-reducing dietary fiber that is wasted with ordinary extractor style juicers. But not with the VITA-MIX Super 5000. It gives you fresh, delicious juice that contains more nutrition than any other…

Intermixed with text that justifies a $399 or $449 purchase are recipes, health tips, and old-fashioned testimonials. By the time we hit the order form on the inside back cover, we’re sold and price is insignificant. That’s salesmanship.

And now for something completely different Are apologies in order for criticizing weaknesses? In a kinder, gentler ambience, probably they would be. But our dedication here is to question copy (and only copy, because others attack other facets of catalog marketing) that doesn’t reflect optimal salesmanship.

It’s the proper litmus test, isn’t it, maximizing salesmanship within the intended target group? So the five I’ve chosen represent (in my opinion) less-than-best salesmanship.

Worst, no. 1: Absolute Amenities Sorry, Absolute Amenities. Your catalog isn’t terrible. But it seems to be unedited. Semiliterate word use abounds, and that’s intolerable when one considers that the best potential customers for this catalog are those who have the best command of the English language. If you aim at a literate target group, be sure your copy is literate.

Note this copy block, with a concept that is sound but with logic, grammar, and spelling that aren’t:

Backyard Ice Rinks Rule! Playing ice sports mean paying expensive rink fees or taking risks on frozen lakes and ponds. Now you can play ice hockey and skate in your own backyard, thanks to the Ice n’Go. As soon as the temperatures reach 32, simply assemble the frame, install the liner with black and red hockey lines and protective boarder, and fill with water. In 2 or 3 days of freezing weather, you’ll have the best spot in the neighborhood for everyone to skate and play in perfect safety on a 2.5″ ice surface. Even if a brief thaw comes, the water stays inside, thanks to an interlocking system. Even in an “unleveled” area, you can create a smooth, high quality skating surface. A patented PVC boarder protects liner from…

I quoted this through the second “boarder” reference to verify that the first misuse wasn’t just a typo. Then we have the temperature “reach”ing 32 degrees, which in any connotation says it’s going up, not down. And of course you caught “Playing ice sports mean” instead of the grammatical “means.” Proofreader, where are you?

Worst, no. 2: LeisurePro This is an uneasy choice. I’m a scuba diver, and this is just about the only comprehensive dive equipment catalog. But as complete as the lines of merchandise are, two words that don’t apply to this catalog are “reader friendly.”

Some of the problem stems from descriptions in overly leaded mice type, which isn’t a true copy problem. But I’m more negatively driven by the casual use of words that don’t belong together. For example, the description of the Vector Platinum BC (buoyancy compensator) begins:

The traditional Mares BC. New design… No, the oxymoronic mixing of “traditional” and “New design” isn’t a big deal. But no one can claim it’s remotely close to the optimal way of describing this BC, which would have been as easy as writing “The classic Mares BC now leads with 21st century upgrades.”

(Another reader-unfriendly aspect of this catalog: Products are grouped by manufacturer, not by the products themselves, so making comparisons is exasperating.)

Worst, no. 3: Sovietski Collection I really wanted to like this catalog, which has the odd slogan “Stellar Treasures” (quotation marks are their’s) on its cover. But it’s frustrating.

As a veteran of collectibles copywriting, I know how many ways there are to justify the claim “limited edition.” This catalog is loaded with porcelain plates and figurines and what-nots described as limited editions…without explaining in what way they’re limited. Is this a gaffe worthy of comment? In my opinion, yes, because the genuine limited edition collector needs at least nominal justification.

Some of the ties are tortured. “Prussian treasure chests” are made in Poland. This wouldn’t be a problem if the writer gave us a rudimentary explanation of what appears to be a mismatch. And item after item has the same description – “Handcrafted by artisans [or master artisans] in Poland.”

Most frustrating: The product mix is fascinating, but as one flips through the catalog he or she becomes more and more unsold by the sameness of descriptions.

Worst, no. 4: Maple Creek Trading Post (online) The Maple Creek home page starts off with a typo: “Thousands of Wonderfull Items…” This international catalog does have benefits to offer, such as “U.S. orders, 30% off all prices.” But a Web visitor gets the feeling that whoever wrote this was sleeping at the time, because the excitement and interest ratio is zero.

The effect is one we’ve seen before and undoubtedly will see many times again: Somebody in management says, “We ought to be on the Web,” and somebody else says, “Well, don’t spend a lot of money on it.” Money has less to do with a Website’s effectiveness than does generating the simple emotional reaction, “I’m interested.”

Worst, no. 5: Dean & Deluca Website Much as I love Dean & Deluca, I have to add its Website to the purgatorial five, because live customer support, intended to ease the search for exotic products, results instead in a slow and painful online textual conversation with a service representative.

My wife tried to order green-olive tapenade and black-olive tapenade. D&D’s computer said `no, we’re entering green tapenade twice.’ The shopping basket wouldn’t delete the mistake, requiring a sign-off, sign-on, and repeat of the order. Once again the shopping basket refused the entry.

How much online nonsense is a customer supposed to suffer? Hey, Dean & Deluca, ask your hotshot techies to check out the far simpler but far easier to navigate Website of Carol Bond Health Foods, letting visitors find even obscure items with a single click.

And that’s the pack for this issue Not to worry. There’s always next year, and we all can be sure some of the giants will stumble just as some of the less-effective catalogs will rise to the top.

Will I hear, “You criticized a catalog that brought the best results we ever had”? Certainly. Does such a comment influence critical judgment? No, because the comparison is catalog to catalog. And who knows how much more income the catalog might have generated had its copy been stronger?

Poor copy won’t destroy a catalog whose offers transcend defective rhetoric. Great copy won’t save a catalog whose offers don’t reflect what the recipients might want to buy. But we whose fingers toil at the keyboards should have a single dedication: the most powerful, most magnetic wordsmithery anyone ever poured onto the screen or onto the page.

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