November 16, 2015

Can Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga save B&N?


Barnes & Noble's newest spokespeople (via YouTube)

Barnes & Noble’s newest spokespeople (via YouTube)

Last week, the Wall Street Journal’s Jeffrey A. Trachtenberg reported on a new Barnes & Noble television commercial created by B&N chairman Leonard Riggio, starring Lady Gaga and Tony Bennett. The commercial is to set to air throughout the holiday season.

Riggio, B&N’s former chief executive, wrote the slogan—“You never know who you’ll meet at Barnes & Noble”—and recruited Bennett, a “longtime friend” who, in turn, brought in Lady Gaga.

The commercial, which features the two singers (and collaborators) browsing for books and singing “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,”, was directed by Jonas Åkerlund, a Swedish director known for less festive, more high-voltage work, like Madonna’s “Ray of Light” video and the 2002 meth-themed comedy-drama Spun. (“Meth-themed comedy-drama” is not as popular a genre as one might expect.)

Amy Sacks, the co-director of Roberts + Langer DDB, the advertising agency responsible for the commercial, said in a press release:

This campaign is like a holiday card from Barnes & Noble to all of its customers. We hope that this little gift of a performance by these two incredibly talented artists will put a smile on people’s faces. We believe that the true warmth and the connection that Mr. Bennett and Lady Gaga share will be something viewers can feel.

This seems . . . like a stretch. Bennett, who turned eighty-nine in August, should be commended for merely having the energy to walk through a bookstore (or, as the case may be, a set designed to look like a bookstore), but “true warmth and…connection” prove to be a bit of a big ask. Toward the end of the commercial, when Gaga and Bennett finally meet, they seem to look neither at the camera nor at each other, which gives the spot a weird, antiseptic vibe. If anything, it’s hard not see the two stars as profoundly disconnected from each other (despite their apparent enthusiasm for one another).

Still, it would be unfair judge the commercial by its necessarily hyperbolic press release. So instead, let’s go to the source. In his article, Trachtenberg asks Riggio what inspired this particular piece of advertising:

“I’d been thinking about physical books, digital books, future store concepts, and the essence of what is it about us that makes us who we are,” says Mr. Riggio, who remains chairman of the company and is the largest shareholder, “The idea of the meeting place, the piazza, is so much of what we’ve become across the country.”

Riggio is a master of corporate-speak, of course, and this is a solid example of the form. But what’s worth pointing out is that this rhetoric doesn’t seem wildly at odds with how independent booksellers would define their own stores. The resurgence of indie bookstores over the last few years has often been linked to what sociologist Ray Oldenburg described as the “third place”—a community space that’s neither one’s home, nor one’s workplace. (Oldenburg was even a featured speaker at the American Booksellers Association’s 2014 Winter Institute.) Whether or not Barnes & Noble constitutes a welcoming “third place” (or, ahem, “piazza”) is a separate question; it’s Riggio’s framing that’s interesting.

Indeed, you can understand exactly what Riggio’s up to if you compare the new commercial to the one he oversaw four decades ago, when B&N became the first American bookstore to advertise on television. That campaign—with the famous tagline “Barnes & Noble! Of course, of course!”—promoted the store’s superior selection in an aggressive—but memorable—way:

In 2015, Barnes & Noble can no longer claim selection as its central selling point hence the new slogan, which privileges the physicality of the store over its contents. A bookseller at an independent can special order a book as quickly as anyone at B&N, and Amazon customers (who are, it must be said, giving money to a company that’s fighting to keep its employees from receiving benefits or fair wages) can often get books in a matter of hours.

Will it work? The commercial is certainly sharper and more persuasive than last year’s vague “A Book is a Gift Like No Other.” If nothing else, like the company’s plastic tote bags, the new spot may be what we described earlier this year as a “very small step in the right direction.”



Mark Krotov is senior editor at Melville House.