Putting words to work

Tourism and retailing are two pillars of the Commonwealth economy. Both industries are highly dependent on advertising. My father was an ad man. He taught me to keep a file of good ads that I encountered so I’d have examples to study. When other kids were collecting stamps I was collecting advertising copy.

I have one such example at hand right now. It appeared in my post office box unbidden. It is a catalog of pipes and tobacco products.

I’m not looking to buy what this catalog is selling. Not now, anyway. But this doesn’t diminish the quality of its pitch or the accuracy of its targeting. On the latter note I reckon that my friends and I are squarely within the demographic profile of the target market. We grew up with pipe smoke wafting from our father’s offices and studies. It’s reasonable to expect that some of us may continue that tradition.

For all the talk of electronic ads these days, the old-fashioned paper catalog is still in evidence.

And, in this case, it’s a good mesh with the products being sold, since the catalog emphasizes the traditional, old-time nature of pipes and tobacco.

Come to think of it, the appeal might extend beyond the mature set hoping to emulate Grandpa’s ways. From what I’ve seen with craft breweries, wristwatches, and certain lines of clothing, some of the younger folks seem interested in premium products that have an old-school feel. Maybe that’s a counterpoint to all the glossy high-tech stuff they’re usually buying.

Anyway, I don’t want to expend much breath trying to describe this pipe and tobacco catalog. The studio photography of the products is solid. Each product is described with a straightforward sales pitch. That’s the whole thing. It keeps its focus on the products that it’s selling, and it doesn’t slide into a self-reverential trap of sounding too fancy or emotive.

Catalogs fall into an advertising category called “direct response.” The advertising guru David Ogilvy was a devoted fan of this genre’s writing. That’s because it evolved with a well-honed sense of what works and what doesn’t work.

Ogilvy wrote: “The curious thing is that the techniques which work best in ‘direct’ advertisements are seldom used in ordinary advertising—like giving factual information about the product.”

He went on to say, “Every copywriter should start his or her career by spending two years in direct response.”

One remarkable thing about commerce is that despite the costs of producing and mailing catalogs the things are everywhere. They fill up my mail box, which I don’t like any more than anyone else does, but I don’t lose sight of the fact that that the good ones are worth study and archival. It’s a free education. The education can be applied to any medium of advertising; that’s what Ogilvy certainly saw.

I get a really wide variety of catalogs. The pipe and tobacco catalog has got me marked as a guy who might spend, say, $50 or $80 on a briar pipe and then, say, $30 for some tobacco. Were I a smoker then, yeah, I guess I’d buy that stuff.

Other catalogs, however, are pretty far off the mark.

For example, what marketing algorithm decided that I’m destined to buy avocado-green double-knit polyester trousers? Do they know something that I don’t know?

On the other hand, some haberdasher’s catalog features a tweed jacket that costs more than a decent used car. I have been marked as a man of means and of taste. That’s a nice thought. Let’s hold onto it as long as we can.

Well, so much for my foray into the catalog world. If we want to put words to work, this realm can offer instructive examples. And since the examples are free, appearing magically in the mail, you can save your money and buy something that suits you. On that note I do have to mention one thing: You’d look great in avocado.

Ed Stephens Jr. | Special to the Saipan Tribune
Visit Ed Stephens Jr. at EdStephensJr.com. His column runs every Friday.

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