Power of the Catalogue

An older man once recounted the first time he’d seen a catalogue.

He was a child, and he and his brother spent hours pouring over the Sears Roebuck catalogue – realizing for the first time all the things they ‘needed.’’

sears catalogue picture

Sears was a forunner in the art of advertising. It came before Keynesian economics, before the average western child received piles of presents every Christmas, and before Americans become fat on clutter.

However, Sears pinpointed on a powerful advertising technique that has only been perfected through the years: the catalogue.

Today a toy catalogue came in the mail. My first response was to set it aside for the kids. This would be fun to look at after their naps I figured.

But then I flipped it open – hundreds of toys were beautifully arranged across the pages. Scene after scene of dolls, cars, toy buildings tantalized even me – as a parent to purchase these wonderful little imaginary worlds for my children to enjoy.

photo 1-6

It was an odd feeling – standing in the sleep silenced house and recognizing the pull of the book on myself (who I consider to be somewhat well-practiced in resisting consumerism.)

It helped me reflect on how catalogues, like all advertising, work to instill a need in us.

Catalogues portray the object in the best case scenario

Lights reflect off of jewelry, toys are arranged in life-like poses, and lets not even talk about the models.

Catalogues portray mass amounts as ‘normal’ and even necessary

A single platter in a set is pictured with all the pieces. A stylish shirt is shown with expensive new boots, leggings, and $200 worth of jewelry.

In any store, there is still a realization of the amount. In a catalogue, not so much.

In a store, I can hand an object to my child and say, “You can only play with one toy at a time. It’s not responsible to get so much stuff.”

But in a catalogue, it’s pictured as part of a whole. My kids would be thrilled to pieces to get a $10 family doll set, but in the catalogue, that is pictured with $75 doll house, the $15 neighbors, and the $25 minivan.

I still remember flipping through the American Girl catalogue as a child. I knew I’d never have all the furniture for my favorite doll, but I still longed for it and consequently looked for what deals my allowance could afford! (And judging from the HUNDREDS of 18 inch doll pieces of furniture on Craigslist – so did thousands of other little girls.)

Catalogues portray an image as the object itself.

For adults, we long to be as sexy, smart, and desireable as the models. For children, they want to be having as much fun as the pictured kids.

Unlike items in a store, catalogues can be kept near us – to tempt us again and again.

As soon as I can I toss catalogues in our house. I don’t think there really is such thing as window shopping – that’s just a name for pre-shopping. I’ve found that the longer a catalogue hangs around, the more likely we are to make a purchase.

I realized that 20 minutes of fun looking at the book with my toddler/ preschool – aged kids would pass, but the lingering discontent and lessons learned would not.


So I threw away the catalogue and when the kids got up from their naps, I did not have a fun catalogue to occupy them. They had a snack, looked at their books on the couch and then went outside and played in the backyard for an hour and a half until baths and supper.

They had a great afternoon. They were content and not confronted with a whole bunch of unneeded things.



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