Good catalog copy needs to immerse its reader in an experience of a product they can’t touch. It’s a lonely voice in the wilderness, tasked with selling a product in a few words, at a distance, sometimes with the help of a picture.

Sure, if you’re selling copier paper or a toner cartridge in an office supplies catalog, you can get by with just the basics. But if you’re selling hand-stitched honeymoon hammocks made by entrepreneurial Maragucho mothers in steamy Venezuelan villages around Lake Maracaibo, or a $239.95 wooden ship model of The U.S.S. Constitution, “Old Ironsides,” or the softest pillow you’ve ever laid your weary head upon, non-descriptive copy just won’t do.

Your catalog doesn’t need to show your products in photographs, or even in color. Years before Banana Republic had brick and mortar stores, the Zeiglers’ hand-drawn, monotone illustrations on rough-hewn, un-coated digest-size stock built a direct response kingdom based on romance, adventure, intrigue and promise.

So did J. Peterman. Long before Seinfeld satirized him, his first ad was a 1/6 page black and white with a line drawing that appeared in the New Yorker back in the mid 80’s for the Cowboy Duster.

I still remember the last lines of that ad: “Although I live in horse country, I wear this coat for other reasons. Because they don’t make Duesenbergs anymore.” (See this People Magazine article from 2000 for the full story, including the name of the copywriter, Don Staley.)

The instant I read that ad I picked up the phone and ordered two coats, one for myself and one for my friend, noted funny car designer and railroad artist par excellence Tom Daniel.

I was a catalog copywriter at the time, selling wooden ship models and car collectibles at Model Expo, and I learned how to romance and sell just about anything by reading catalogs like Banana Republic and J. Peterman. (My copy for the Navy Issue Coffee Mug in the Lion’s Share catalog — “0:300 hours… the windswept, raindrenched bridge of a ship on patrol in the Pacific…” —  broke all sales expectations for what was supposed to be an impulse item throwaway on an order form.)

I get offended by bad  catalog copy. And there’s nothing worse than catalog copy that doesn’t deliver.

Why am I telling you this? Because I was just reading the black and white, line illustrated  Campmor catalog, my favorite outdoor adventure catalog, and came across the following available colors for hiking boots:  Havana, Jupiter, Gypsy and Brindle.

Now, to be sure, some color names are getting more intriguing, playful and engaging. I can figure out what color Butter is, especially when paired with Cordovan. Mint Green is easy, as is Dark Chocolate. Mud is a bit less clear – after all, wet dirt can come in a variety of hues. I’m pretty sure Limonata will look something like the liquid in those tiny Italian bottles of soda that cost way too much and never taste that good anyway.

But what about Beluga? Is it describing the whale, which is white, or the caviar, which is smoky black? Then there’s Moonstruck, Picante, London Fog, Andorra, Fossil, and Elephant (They don’t say whether they mean African, Indian or Pink. Hey, it matters!). Then there are the blues:  Pearl Blue, Turkish Blue, Brushed Metal Blue, and Goblin Blue. (I’ve played D&D for decades and never once heard of Goblin Blue.)

It’s not just one company. These colors describe boots by Columbia, Merrell, Vasque and North Face. I breathed a sigh of relief when I got to New Balance’s color palate:  Blue, Red, Brown, Black and Grey.

But my absolute favorite obfuscated colors are Havana, Jupiter, Gypsy and Brindle.

I looked at a Google Earth and for the life of me couldn’t figure out what color Havana is. (Unless they were making a sideways reference to skin color, but even then, Cuban skin color varies in the extreme from light to dark.)

I looked at a picture of Jupiter on Google. Do they mean the spot or the bands? And are they looking at the red-tinged color enhanced photos, the washed out grey ones, or what?

Gypsy — I don’t even know where to start, given that traditional Gypsy garb is very colorful and almost never monotone.

The best of all is Brindle. According to Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary, Brindle is defined as “Having obscure dark streaks or flecks on a gray or tawny background.” Mmm, I want a pair of those to go with my Roan pants and Harlequin shirt. (What, no dog lovers out there?)

Look, I love when copywriters romance their descriptions. And I get the problem of making your product stand out from the next when they’re all colored Brown. But what’s wrong with using words that simultaneously describe and romance? Nobody was ever left wondering what color Mocha is, or whether Apricot would look better on your feet than Desert Sand.

I guess I could just go to the Campmor website and look at the pictures to find out what color these colors really are. But doesn’t that defeat the purpose of a printed mail order catalog in the first place?

So, since I’m clearly too stubborn to find out on my own, can someone please explain to me what color Havana is?

Comments
  1. Oftenatangent says:

    Perhaps it’s a bit like “stone”, a term for color I see too often.
    So the question is, “Malachite, Turquoise, Obsidian, Ruby or Alabaster?”

  2. Marrus says:

    I’ve watched this naming trend for years…thing is, color is so subjective that even “red” is open to interpretation. Red? Is it warm or cool? Fire engine, poppy, maroon? Does it lean to brown? Orange?

    Greens are even worse, containing the widest range of colors that can still be considered green. Yellow green? Olive? Kelly? Forest? Can turquoise be green? (Answer, yeah, if it’s skewed far enough.)

    As Laurie Anderson said, “Talking about music is like dancing about architecture.” Labeling color only gives us the briefest understanding of what that color IS, so these catalogs, knowing that those color names more often than not have swatches attached, err on the side of invention. “Let’s just say an evocative word & go from there.”

    And, no, I dunno what color “havana” is, but a seamed, rich, reddish brown springs to mind.

    • jlsimons says:

      Great Laurie Anderson quote, Marrus. Thanks. And yes, color is very subjective. But at least I know what part of the spectrum Red or Brown is. I don’t even know where to begin with Gypsy or Havana. If I’m buying hiking boots, I know I’ll where pretty much anything brown, and won’t wear pretty much anything red. So would I be happy with Havana? The jury is still out. I’m just saying a printed catalog needs to give me more than a colorful but ultimately useless color name.

  3. Chris says:

    Inspired as I was by your comments, I perused the Campmor website, and I have to ask about the color “Nicotine.” I wonder, beyond the issue of that not being a clearly defined color, if there is not a built in negative connotation to the color which might be advisable to avoid. My mind instantly goes to the dark orange-yellow color the stains habitual smokers fingers, and of the faint browning of walls in smoke filled rooms. Yuck.

    • jlsimons says:

      Thanks, Chris. I’m jealous that I missed that one in the catalog. Nicotine — that is priceless! And you’re right, the negative connotations are horrid. Speaking of which, have you ever seen the flavors in Berty Bott’s Every Flavor Beans, the Harry Potter-themed jellybeans from Jelly Belly? They have flavors like dirt, vomit, and boogers… with appropriately nasty tastes. Of course, in that case, it works. Maybe Marlboro can do a promotional tie-in with Nicotine colored merchandise… to match the stains on smoker’s teeth. (No offense intended to those addicted to tobacco.)

  4. Rose says:

    It’s not just clothes. You can paint your house “spellbound.”

    • jlsimons says:

      Thanks for the heads-up, Rose. I guess Spellbound is better than Frenzy, Psycho or Vertigo. Although, in keeping with Hitchcock movies, Topaz would work just fine. (I wonder what it would be like to live in a house painted “Notorious”?)

  5. Faithful Reader says:

    As a frequent catalog shopper I know whereof you speak. I must say, however, that the clothing catalogs from which I shop make generous use of photos to illustrate even relatively self-descriptive “grass,” “java,” “rust,” and “adobe,” etc. Does make life easier and encourages repeat orders because I’m seldom suprised when the item arrives. I’m sure the color adds to the advertisers’ costs, as well as sales, which I’m guessing is the point of it all.

    F.R.

    • jlsimons says:

      Thanks for the comment, FR. Color catalogs do mitigate the problem, somewhat. But I also had the situation a couple of years ago when I bought my wife a bag that looked black in the color picture, was called Dark Chocolate in the description, but came in looking more like a dark olive drab with a hint of brown. Having been on my share of photo shoots, I know how hard it can be to get colors right, but it behooves a catalog to do just that. When they get it right, though, they do engender a sense of faith in their customers that leads to continued ordering, like it seems to have done with you.

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