The Huh? Syndrome is still with us

Hard to believe. Printed catalogs are up to their eyeballs in competition…from the Web, from newcomers, from revitalized retailers, from discount malls. One would think a catalog would knock itself out avoiding the Huh? Syndrome. n For the uninitiated-and I don’t think many readers of Catalog Age are in that group-the Huh? Syndrome is bewilderment on the part of a catalog reader who sees a headline or a description and reacts “Huh?” n Suppose you’re in a store. You spot a toaster. What’s easier to describe than a toaster? Up comes the clerk. He starts with a statement that generates a quick “Huh?”: “This has a chrome-plated design.”

A what? How is chrome plating related to the design? Oh, well, what he meant to say is that the toaster is chrome-plated. No biggie there, although you get a little uneasy.

After showing you “wide slots that toast a variety of items from English muffins to thick homemade bread,” showing you the LED display and the slide-out tray, and crowing over the usual meaningless “limited warranty,” he winds up with “And it’s supposed to sell for $59.98.”

You wait for the killer. What’s his price? But even as your eyes shift from him to the toaster, his pitch is finished. He’s gone. You never do find out what the actual price is.

Does a catalog do this? You bet it does, in spades. In fact, what’s so confusing is that this catalog (see photo on page 128) intermixes actual prices with crossed-out prices; the crossed-out prices have no actual price for comparison. You’re at sea.

If you really, really want the item you’ll look and look and look for the reference. Ah! In small type: “Crossed out prices are list prices. Call for our low, low prices!”

Okay, call whom? There’s no phone number. Oh, wait, yes, there is…on another page. But by that time the Huh? Syndrome has totally replaced any latent buying impulse.

Pure poetry! (What does it mean?) Here’s a catalog whose copy often reaches heights of brilliance. So benevolence demands tolerance of an occasional aberration.

It’s a jacket. Copy says it’s available in charcoal or navy, although the printing doesn’t seem to clarify either color. Here’s the heading:

A jacket born of the land and bred to withstand.

Huh? Okay, it rhymes. What have we given up to get that rhyme? Let’s read the first line of body copy:

In cooler weather do like New Zealand outdoorsmen do.

No help there. So back to the heading. “Born of the land.” Does that mean it grows? Nope. Later in the text we learn it’s merino wool. How does that make it born of the land? Then we have “bred to withstand.” That’s a little easier, because the writer probably meant it will withstand cold. Or is it wind? Or is it rain? Wait, there it is: It “provides more wind resistance than traditional woven fabrics.”

You may argue that rhapsody sells. So it does…if it’s in sync with our premier guiding force, the Clarity Commandment: When you choose words and phrases for force-communication, clarity is paramount. Don’t let any other component of the communications mix interfere with it.

Original or forgeries? Who cares?

One of the more clever bits of copywriting is from a catalog dedicated almost entirely to imports from Russia, primarily various types of art.

Here’s a Russian icon for $650. Now, that’s not cigar money. The heading, in the best Boardroom Reports tradition:

The secret the leading auction houses don’t want you to know.

What follows is a tautly written history of Russian hand-painted icons. According to the description, Lenin and Stalin destroyed most of these during their demolition of churches. Then the KGB capitalized on the increased value of those that remained, through “a top-secret operation during the ’60s whereby antique icons were recovered and retouched.” Huh? First they destroy them, then they retouch the remainders? Why didn’t they do what the diamond moguls do: Hold onto them and release them onto the market slowly?

The copy then takes a wild turn: The icons we have may be authentic or they may just be top-notch forgeries. We don’t know.

Now hold it, buddy. If you’re in the business and can’t tell 17th-century gold leaf from late-20th-century overpainting, how can you justify charging $650 and calling it “A rare and wonderful collectible, at a fraction of the thousands you’d pay at auction or in an antique shop for a so-called original”? Aren’t you suggesting that some of yours-which you’re unable to isolate-may be originals?

It’s clever copywriting, even though “The secret the leading auction houses don’t want you to know” doesn’t pay off. Can you imagine Christie’s or Sotheby’s auctioning off an icon “for thousands” and telling us, “Of course, we can’t tell whether these are forgeries”? Or worse, not telling us? Come on. This catalog obviously realizes that those who react with a skeptical “Huh?” aren’t good prospects anyway.

Eureka! It’s a vacuum cleaner Spartan copy has its place, but not when the Rule of Spartan Avoidance is required. I’ll come to the rule afterrepeating every word of copy for three vacuum cleaners described in adjacent copy blocks.

No. 1: SAVE 20% $19.99 sale Eureka Superbroom. 161EU Reg. $24.99 No. 2: $49.99 sale Eureka Powerline Superbroom. 296EU Reg. $54.99 No. 3: $36.99 sale Eureka Boss Lite Cordless Broom. 96EU Reg. $39.99

That’s it. Oh, sure, we can conclude the Powerline is a better Superbroom than its less-adjectival sibling. And “Cordless” establishes a different parameter. But what makes “Powerline” worth more than twice as much? What does “Boss Lite” mean? There’s room for one line of specifics.

The Rule of Spartan Avoidance should have come into play: When the illustrations don’t clarify the differences among similar items, the copy must clarify the differences among similar items.

Attention spans are growing shorter. Tempers are growing shorter. And the Web is providing so much information that some sites have immersed themselves in the deep end of the information pool, while print catalogs splash mindlessly in the shallow end.

Take a look at your descriptions. Better yet, have an outsider take a look. If any generate a “Huh?” reaction, do us all a favor and add a little dose of clarifier, will you?

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