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Remember the classic 1970s movie The Jerk? One of Steve Martin's funniest (and most often quoted) lines is ...

"The new phone book's here! The new phone book's here!"

Well, that's kind of how we feel at B Direct whenever a new J. Peterman catalog arrives. Oh wait, did we say "catalog?" Scratch that. It's not a catalog; it's "Owner's Manual No. 158B." Because, nothing about the Peterman catalog is business as usual.

First of all, most retailers would tell you that showing photos of apparel will outsell showing illustrations. The folks at Peterman clearly missed the memo. From the front cover to the back cover to every page of the 60-page saddle-stitched booklet, items are illustrated. The current issue depicts baseball shirts, striped overalls, and the company's signature duster with corresponding page numbers. 

But, when you go to those pages, you don't find anything as pedestrian as "Shirt." Instead, You find a story entitled "Throwing a Curve." We learn that our narrator (presumably, Peterman himself) wore shirts like this and called them "Sleeves." They have emotional value as they hark back to "my days in professional baseball." Within the story, lesser "imitation" garments are ridiculed, while these are promoted as "comfortable and engaging to wear, lightweight, warm, not hot, not itchy, not sticky, not fussy." Only after all the romance, we learn that the come in sizes S-XXL, in three color combinations, and that they're $69.

On the same page, under the headline "America's Pastime," Peterman offers a Nokona Infielder's Glove. "Made in Texas from premium, top-grain steerhide," This nostalgic glove will set you back $350. Unless you're a lefty; then you'll have to special order it.

Did we mention the striped overalls? We may have, but Peterman doesn't. Their story is called "Prima Donna" and alludes to a famous (or infamous) opera star who once wore these Monte Carlo Overalls on a massive yacht called Christina. "It is she who was the symbol of seduction, of power," the story explains, "Her legend is ... legendary for sure." A great deal of the fun of the Peterman experience is deducing who each of the stories is about. Did Maria Callas actually wear overalls like these? Who knows. But, you can for a cool $189.

The final cover image is a small sketch of the J. Peterman Duster, the classic coat upon which the Peterman collection was built. Peterman himself explains, "Classic horeseman's duster protect you, your rump,  your saddle and your legs down to the ankle.s. Because it's cut very long to do the job, it's unintentionally very flattering. With or without a horse. Although I Iive in horse country, I wear this coat for other reasons. Because they don't make Duesenbergs anymore." The duster, by the way, lists at $379.

There are another 80 or 90 items in the booklet, each with its own story, selling lifestyle (or aspiration) before merchandise. The formula, rule-breaking or not, works. John Peterman founded the company in 1987, and quickly grew it from a small-space ad in the New Yorker (selling the aforementioned duster) to the illustrated storybook we know and love today. From 1995 to 1998, Peterman was a recurring character on the hit TV show Seinfeld (played by John O'Hurley). In 1997, the company sold actual props and reproductions from the movie Titanic, earning over $1 million on "Heart of the Ocean" necklaces alone. The company was purchased by Paul Harris in 1999, but bought back by Peterman when that company dissolved a decade later.

So, what does J. Peterman have to teach us as direct marketers? 

First of all, rules are great, but sometimes by breaking them you stand out in a crowded marketplace.

Second, never underestimate the power of a good story. 

And third, less isn't always more.

Still think long copy doesn't work? We have a duster you might want to buy.

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