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25+ years ago, copywriting jobs were few and far between. Most people had no clue what a copywriter did. Things have changed. With SEO, Social Media, tweeting and blogging, the opportunities for a career in copywriting have exploded. Mad Men made it sexy. Today, it’s often referred to as content creation. A company out to hire is looking for a ‘Content Creator’. One aspect of content creation that, in my eyes, is not given its due is catalog copywriting.
In Canada, think IKEA, Lee Valley or the Regal catalog. In the U.S., there’s L.L. Bean, J.C. Penney, Hammacher Schlemmer and Orvis (an icon of catalog shopping for almost 160 years). If you think about it, Mail Order (Direct Mail) catalogs were actually a precursor to Internet shopping? You couldn’t buy something locally, so you ordered it from a catalog and had it shipped. It could be argued that every online shopping experience, including Kijiji and ebay, is fundamentally catalog shopping.
Even in this age of technology, people love catalogues. They’re also brand loyal. I browse the IKEA catalog in print and from my phone. My 20-something daughters browse American Apparel’s catalogue online. At one company I worked for, which shall remain unnamed, we often got letters from prison inmates: “We love your catalogs, when’s your new one coming out? Can you send it so we can pass it around.” Granted, maybe we weren’t making any money off those folks at the time, but it makes the point.
When I started in the business, you either worked for an ad agency or you wrote catalog copy for a large retailer. Fresh out of university with an English degree (are you sure you can make money with that degree? my pragmatic father asked), I saw exactly one copywriting job advertised. It was writing catalog copy for Consumers Distributing. I was all over it! I must have rewritten my resumé ten times, even though my experience was slim pickins. Somehow, I got an interview. A scary, no-nonsense woman in an expensive navy blue power suit with a hair bun and imposing tortoise shell glasses interviewed me. Don Draper, she wasn’t. (But what a marvelous mentor she turned out to be!) “We’re looking for a workhorse. Tight deadlines. Lots of overtime. You need to make the products sound sexy in 30 words or less . Can you make a coffee pot sound sexy?” she peered at me over the glasses.” I’d missed my bus, walked two miles in my cheap new ‘interview’ pumps and my feet were killing me. Desperate for a job and to prove to my dad that I could make money with my degree, I said something like: “Oh, absolutely. I can write anything!” (Wondering if I actually could make a coffee pot sound sexy and what my dad would think of me making it sound sexy?) I got the job — enthusiasm, not experience, won the day
As Thomas Jefferson, put it, “the most valuable of all talents is that of never using two words when one will do.” If catalog copywriting teaches you anything, it teaches you to be stingy with words . It’s the boot camp of copywriting. Short, powerful, precise prose. It gets thoughts in shape, tones down wordiness, keeps the message lean. Forget ego, there’s no room. Snappy headlines and a photo generate interest, bold lead-ins draw the reader in and feature/benefit copy closes the sale. Personally, I think every fledgling copywriter should be required to put in an obligatory six months writing nothing but catalog copy. It forces one to be disciplined.
I have the greatest respect for catalog copywriters. A good one can take the writing to an art form.
Seen a great piece of catalog copywriting? Send me a link.