Crown Books shows it has the write stuff

By Published on .

Advertiser: Crown Books
Agency: DeVito/Verdi, New York
Ad Review rating: Three stars

Let's say you wanted to get a copy of that amusing and poignant collection, "Waking Up Screaming From the American Dream" by Bob Garfield (Scribner, $23).

You could go to Crown Books, pioneer book discounter, and pay $19.55--15% off of the cover price. Such discounts always infuriated independent booksellers, as Crown extracted favorable pricing from publishers while carving heavily into the indies' market and offering a very narrow selection.

Well, now Crown itself is being carved into. The marketplace's 900-pound guerrilla is suddenly losing ground to Barnes & Noble, Borders and the like.

Used to be the chain's CEO, Bobby Haft, could credibly pose in his gargantuan pompadour, chirping in his rich-kid falsetto, "Books cost too much!" They still do, but now Crown has a lot of company in driving prices down. Sure, it still discounts New York Times best sellers 40%, but the other chains take 30% off, themselves. Borders will sell you a copy of the witty and touching "Waking Up Screaming From the American Dream" for $20.70--and they'll do it in gigantic stores with vastly more titles, upholstered furniture and on-site coffee concessions.

Some of these competitive problems are immutable; despite a move toward larger Super Crown stores, most locations are just too small to stock more than the most popular titles. On the other hand, this is a feisty company, accustomed to slugging it out in the marketplace. Enter DeVito/Verdi, New York.

The agency, a guerrilla marketer in its own right, has made its trademark the use of inexpensive, smart-alecky 15-second spots that hammer home the copy like a smack on the chops. It's done this for the New York area retailer Daffy's, CarMax used cars, Circuit City electronics, Canon copiers, Linens 'n Things and nearly every client who walks in the door.

Sometimes the ads are witty and on target, sometimes blunt and obnoxious, but a DeVito/Verdi ad is not hard to spot. In the case of Crown Books, neither will they be hard to ignore.

It's not just that they very effectively communicate that the chain has a broader selection of titles than maybe you'd think. And it isn't just that the discount-leader message comes through loud and clear. What distinguishes this particular batch of mainly 15-second blackouts is that many of them are laugh-out-loud funny.

One begins with a young guy holding a coffee cup in one hand and a book in the other. He's shaking so badly he can't focus on the printing.

"Why do other bookstores serve you so much coffee?" the voice-over asks. "Maybe it's because they don't want you to see the price? Crown Books. When it comes to low prices, we wrote the book."

That's the subtle gag. Others play off of the titles from Crown's (allegedly) broad selection. In one, some dweeb passing a biker bar accidentally knocks over a motorcycle, beginning a domino effect on the other parked bikes. The next shot is a book: "How We Die."

Another spot pans along a lovers lane, with all the cars bouncing around from the amorousness afoot inside. Finally we see a flying saucer doing more or less the same thing. The book: "Mars & Venus on a Date."

Vulgar, clever, classic DeVito/Verdi. Also perfect for Crown: just what the client is looking for, for much less than it would pay elsewhere.

Copyright October 1997, Crain Communications Inc.

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