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Catalog Writing

posted: 11.19.12 by archived

It’s catalog season. My mailbox is slowly filling with these glossy little books. I pick through them for the other mail, and leave them to stack up in there. I wish there were a way to stop companies from mailing these catalogs to my house. It’s ironic: When you buy something online, the company then send you their catalog four times (or more) a year. Shopping online could have killed the catalog—but the opposite seems to be happening.

When I was a kid, I got a job delivering catalogs for a major department store. They were heavy as hell. I pulled them behind me in a cart. It took hours to complete the route. A friend from school had a route abutting mine, but he chucked all his catalogs in a dumpster and went off to play road hockey. He got paid the same amount that I did. I’m still not sure what the moral of that story is.

Instead of moving those catalogs out of the mailbox to the recycling bin right now, I’ll write a blog post. About catalogs. 

First, I want to link to an excellent rhetoric journal: Harlot. I strongly recommend that you check out this journal and consider using some of these articles in your rhetoric and writing classes.  Paul Muhlhauser and Kelly Bradbury have an excellent multimedia article in this journal called “How Genders Work: Producing the J.Crew Catalog.” The tongue-in-cheek “purpose” of their article is “to teach you J.Crew’s principles of how genders work so you can produce catalogs that will continue to teach our consumers about their places in the world and the clothing they need to succeed.” The article is in fact a strong critique of the writing, images, and design of the catalog. Great stuff. (I’d like to apply this same sort of analysis to the toy catalogs that so differently take aim at my son and daughter.)

I am also intrigued by the “Most Important Gift Catalog in the World,” the holiday catalog from Heifer International. Heifer is a charity that allows you to choose livestock or seeds to send to families or communities around the world. The charity has been vetted and received strong ratings from philanthropic reviewers and auditors. But the catalog itself deserves some analysis, because it seems that much of the appeal of Heifer is due to the pictures of children holding baby goats, hugging llamas, and petting geese. When I searched for critiques of the catalog, I also discovered that people are most upset that the money they donate might not directly go toward the water buffalo they thought they had bought. The animals, and the prices attached to them in the catalog, are largely symbolic. Why does that make people mad? How does that reveal what the catalog is actually selling, and what people actually want a charitable donation to do? Maybe I won’t recycle the Heifer catalog yet—instead I’ll bring it into class.

Finally, a discussion of catalogs, writing, and rhetoric simply wouldn’t be complete without mentioning the J. Peterman catalog, made famous on Seinfeld but also a real company. For years I have been bringing product descriptions from this catalog into class. The writing gives products inflated character and life. It’s lots of fun to emulate this style with students. If this goes over well, then you also might look for some examples of the wildest catalog of all time: George Leonard Herter’s sporting goods catalog, written about in the New York Times.

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Categories: Jay Dolmage
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