Breaking Every Rule in the Book!

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In 50 years, the saddest catalog I ever saw!

In the media player at the right are eight pages (four two-page spreads) from a British catalog that turned up on my kitchen counter.

As readers of this cranky publication know, I am a stickler for knowing rules.

I wrote two books of rules: “2,239 Tested Secrets for Direct Marketing Success” (co-authored with Don Jackson) and “CAREER-CHANGING TAKEAWAYS: Quotations, Rules, Aphorisms, Pithy Tips, Quips, Sage Advice, Secrets, Dictums and Truisms in 99 Categories of Marketing, Business and Life.”

I know about rules.

The Ultimate Rule of Rules
“Learn the current rules so you’ll know when you are violating them. In direct marketing, as in any other field, if you don’t know the rules, you will fail. It’s true that rules are made to be broken, but to be successful you have to know them first. Only then can you break them, expand on them or go on to create new rules of your own.” —John J. Flieder (1931-2008) Direct marketer, Allstate Corp, founder of the Callahan Group

The Rule of Rules was amplified by Seattle direct marketing wizard and guru Bob Hacker:

  • Play by the rules until you have solid controls; you have a higher chance of success and less risk.
  • Break the rules after you have solid controls, because in breaking rules, the riskand sometimes the costis much higher.
  • There are two ways to find a breakthrough: Play the rules better than anybody else. Break the rules better than anybody else!

In 50 years of scrutinizing direct mail and catalogs, I have never seen so many broken rules in one venue.

I found the Boden catalog from Great Britain lying forlornly on my kitchen counter. A tiny little thing: 64 pages, just 5-3/4″ x 7-1/4.” Across the bottom of the cover was the clue where it came from:

Denny Hatch is the author of six books on marketing and four novels, and is a direct marketing writer, designer and consultant. His latest book is “Write Everything Right!” Visit him at

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  • Earl

    I’ve heard that white text on dark/black background for websites is the easiest on the eyes. This may or may not apply to print as well, but goes directly against your rules at the end of the article. Similar example would be freeway signs. All those are "reversed" text.

  • tony the pitiful copywriter

    Thank you, Denny! I haven’t stopped laughing yet. Because we all know the designers who cooked this mess up. Heck, some of the copywriters involved may have bought into this atrocity as well. Do you know who these people are? I do. They have different names, but the most common is "young people."

    Even our digital devices try to mimic paper. Look at the new Amazon Kindle. But youngsters? Good Lord, can’t tell them anything. Until they’re unemployed, I suppose.

  • tony the pitiful copywriter

    One more thing. There could be a Boden marketing conversation around this printed piece that assumes the customer will go to the website, anyway, so who cares about the details of this presentation? Even if that were true, why not make the print presentation as good as possible? It’s an awful lot to assume customer behavior. If they’re reading and looking, keep their attention as much as possible. Denny just showed you how.

  • C. Thomas (Tom) Smith, III

    Denny, dead on as always. I’d suggest many of the same rules for readability apply to websites as well.

  • dave

    there are plenty of atrocious designers and creative directors at work in America churning out awful work on a daily basis. Don’t you look at any of the advertising in all those papers you read and TV shows you watch?