Carrie Rengers

Former Sears catalog copywriter Joe Norris discusses when ‘Americans needed stuff’

Joe Norris, back (or the one “with the Tony Orlando haircut,” as he puts it) and Mike Heine in Colorado in 1975 with their wives, Marilynn Norris, left, and Donna Heine. The men met as Sears catalog copywriters.
Joe Norris, back (or the one “with the Tony Orlando haircut,” as he puts it) and Mike Heine in Colorado in 1975 with their wives, Marilynn Norris, left, and Donna Heine. The men met as Sears catalog copywriters. Courtesy photo

With the Sears bankruptcy filing, some people felt a twinge of sadness to see a once-great retail giant fall, but longtime Wichita ad executive Joe Norris felt his nostalgia in the early 1990s when he saw the internet’s effect on Sears.

“It’s a sad thing that the whole catalog went away,” he says. “It was a fantastic training ground for an advertising copywriter.”

He knows firsthand from working there from 1969 to 1975 after graduating with an English degree with an emphasis in journalism from Fort Hays State University.

Norris took a Sears copywriting test in which he had to write an ad for a Craftsman hammer and a couple of other things. He got the job in Chicago with a lot of other people his age.

“Virtually all of us were fresh out of college. It was just like a continuation of college party time.”

He took a two-week class on how to write in the Sears style.

Norris says he learned that “number one, Sears didn’t sell — ever — just a thing.”

The company sold “their good thing, their better thing and their best thing,” whether it was hammers or lawnmowers or underwear.

“They all three have to be good. They just have to get progressively better as you write about them.”

He also learned about the prohibition against widows, meaning writers couldn’t leave a line of type not completely filled.

“Otherwise it was a wasted opportunity.”

That’s where phrases such as, “Wipes clean with a damp cloth,” and, “Installs easily with household tools,” proved handy.

Also, copy could not contain an ellipsis.

“They hated those. I’m not sure why.”

Writers had to have a singular voice. Norris says the catalogs couldn’t go from Hemingway’s voice to Tolkien’s.

“The Sears way of describing things was a fairly rigid construct. It needed to be,” he says. “As a result, there wasn’t much creativity. . . . There was no real imagination to it.”

As a result, the copy writers had to get imaginative in other ways.

“There were pranks played all day long,” Norris says. “Screwing around . . . was elevated to an art form there. You had to find ways to fight boredom.”

He says one “little off-the-books competition” involved spelling a certain “four-letter word vertically using the first letter of four sequential lines.”

“It was pretty easy to get it done on your rough copy,” Norris says.

Then designers would get hold of it and kerning would happen, so no one ever successfully got the word printed as far as Norris knows. Everyone had his defense ready, though.

“You could claim innocence.”

The best part of the job for Norris, a farm kid from Kansas, was getting to hang around people like himself for the first time. His days were filled with pop culture, trivia and pranks.

Some of the lessons he learned in between the fun followed him into his advertising career. Norris retired a decade ago as CEO of Sullivan Higdon & Sink.

“You had to learn an economy of description,” he says. Also, “It taught selling up.”

Occasionally, Norris trots out stories on Facebook about his days at Sears.

In a 2014 post, he wrote about how “Sears catalog copywriters helped the American public understand how empty their lives had been without a Kenmore harvest gold frost-free refrigerator or a Silvertone 24-inch (diagonal measure) color TV with automatic frequency control.”

This paragraph from that 2014 post perhaps sums up his first career best:

“In the early 1970s, Americans needed stuff. They needed lime green, double-knit polyester, flare-legged trousers that would not wrinkle, even in a hurricane. They needed decorative mirror tiles that could enhance the beauty of any room in seconds. And they needed console stereo systems capable of playing LPs, cassettes and 8-tracks while also providing a handsome addition to any living room with their stain-resistant, easy care, hand-rubbed, wood-grained laminate finish. Americans needed all that stuff. The problem was, they didn’t yet KNOW they needed it. That’s where Sears catalog copywriters came in.”

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