Why good catalog copy is so tough to write

As a pilgrim who has wandered for scores of years through the fertile valleys (and inhospitable hills) of both direct marketing and catalogs, I’ve come to some conclusions about which is more difficult…which is more disciplined…and which is more satisfying. n Difficulty and discipline are Siamese twins. Writing either a direct mail package or catalog copy grows or decreases in difficulty with the demand for matching a preconceived format. The discipline lies in meeting that requirement without stifling the creative salesmanship.

Catalog copy is tougher to write I’d opine that catalog copy requires greater discipline, because of a major factor: space limitations.

No matter how stiffly formal or loosely informal, how technical or dumbed down, how exclamatory or explanatory the demand from On High might be, we copywriters have automatic latitude in a two-page or four-page sales letter. We have to, because we intermix peddling with persuasion, dynamism with description. Even under the most stringent circumstances, some latitude exists.

Not so with catalogs. I’m looking at a catalog that, although mildly flawed, says in a single paragraph just about everything I might say in a letter-plus-brochure:

Magnetic Belt System

For centuries, magnetic therapy has been used to help reduce swelling, ease stiffness, stimulate circulation and relieve pain. Now there’s a complete system for all your body parts. Our 8-pc. set includes 2 small disks with one magnet, 2 large disks with 5 magnets, 3 neoprene belts to hold magnets securely to your body to provide a custom fit and a back belt with 16 magnets. #23447 Magnetic Belt System ñ39.99

I said “mildly flawed.” “To hold magnets to your body to provide a custom fit” is one “to” too many in proximity, and “Now there’s” is weaker than a proprietary claim should be. Yeah, the flaws are mild enough, especially if one asks, “If I wrote a two-page letter and included a descriptive brochure plus a Question/Answer form, could I sell it any better? Or might I overpitch and unsell it?”

Salesperson, “creative,” or clerk Some copywriters resent being thought of as salespeople. Oh, no, they claim, they’re “creatives.”

Suggestion: Don’t hire such people. They put themselves ahead of what they’re selling. They want to call attention to the writing as writing, and that’s a short road to reader turnoff.

An example is this description of a gift item:

Tower of Power: We’re Selling Indulgences

Your palate’s palace: No matter how assiduous your palate, and whether your tastes are patrician or patronizing, your lips will never feel as though they’re shrouded under a Balaclava when you indulge yourself with this baclava…

And on it goes, toying with words whether they make sense or not, a self-patronizing indulgence in itself. Undoubtedly the writer feels superior to whatever he/she is supposed to be selling…and undoubtedly the writer has cowed a supervisor through rhetorical bullying (unless the chief executive decided to play wordsmith). But how about us out here, waiting to be convinced?

A play on words is a dangerous game, more so in catalog copy than in direct mail or e-mail. That’s because space is finite, and attention to each word is intensified.

“Duh” copy

Some catalog copy doesn’t require a copywriter at all. Example:

Andre Assous suede mid-calf boot with buckle detail, microsole, and 2″ heel. In black or brown. Imported for full and half sizes 5-10B, 6-10AA.

Boot, was 140.00; NOW 98.00.

Another, in the same catalog:

Check shirt jacket, solid tank with check trim, and solid drawstring pant. Shirt jacket, of rayon/acetate/polyester. Tank and pant, of acetate/rayon. All made in the USA. Missy sizes XS, S, M, L, XL. Women’s sizes 1X, 2X, 3X.

Factual? Certainly. Requires a copywriter? No. Any new hire who can copy product sheets can do it.

On a comparative basis, which of the next two product descriptions is more likely to sell salmon steaks to you? (Note: The amount of available space was about the same for both of these catalogs.)

Version A:


These are genuine Sockeye salmon steaks, ready to slap into the oven and serve to discriminating guests. As you would expect, it melts in your mouth… and you’ll savor every bite.

Version B:

Flash Smoked Sockeye Salmon Dinner Fillets

We start this very special SeaBear creation by hand filleting a wild Sockeye salmon from Alaska’s legendary Copper River, removing the bones and portioning into individual serving sizes. Then, we “flash smoke” it lightly, smoking the salmon over very low heat; this does not cook the salmon, but gives it a wonderfully subtle smokehouse flavor which comes to life when you bake or grill it at home. The result-a perfect salmon dinner that is simply the best you ever tasted.

I admit, I recoiled a little at the word “wild” in that second description. Somehow it seems inhuman to hand-fillet a wild salmon. But the ultimate point is, head to head, which copywriter would you hire? The first description is “Duh” copy that intermixes plurals and singulars and may have you cringing at the thought of “slapping” the fish into the oven; the second description is true catalog copywriting.

The copywriting career path? Headhunters who specialize in creative talent often think that they’re advancing a copywriter’s career when they move a catalog copywriter into a direct response position. Are they right?

Well, the pay may be better, but they’re right only if that copywriter hasn’t had the opportunity to add flavor to the necessary discipline, a discipline I wish more direct response copywriters could master.

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