August 11th, 2020

Back-to-School Ads Empathize with Uncertainty


Ace Metrix

Back-to-school advertising is another COVID-19 hurdle for brands. What goes on the school supply shopping list depends on whether students are walking or logging into their classrooms. With most counties and states making up their minds last minute, retail’s second biggest spending event remains in limbo. 

Brands are empathizing with, but not dwelling on, this uncertainty in their back-to-school ads. Scripts use equivocal phrasing like “however you go back” and visuals waver between in-person and remote class settings. In COVID-19 ad fashion, spots also play up safer point-of-sale options like contactless pickup and delivery. As for not dwelling on it, brands are keeping the mood cheerful and energetic in ads, much like those from years past.

Among respondents with children at home, the average Ace Score for back-to-school ads as a group are in line with last year’s norm. In verbatim comments, a handful of parents noted their appreciation for brands that did not shy away from the ambiguity of the academic year. Meanwhile, a much smaller percentage felt negatively towards back-to-school ads in general because of the pandemic. 

Of those we’ve tested so far, the following are resonating best with parents:

Kohl’s | “Buy Now”

Sentiment remained positive or neutral among parents that commented on the back-to-school theme amid the pandemic. Instead of getting caught up in the negativity of the upcoming school year, the Colorful visuals and upbeat, Energetic feel of “Buy Now” captivated most parents. Reactions to those aspects of the ad were strongest (as shown in the Ace Emo plot below), with a smaller group of Kohl’s admirers setting off signal on Prodtastic, Authentic, Cool and Value:

Emotional Profile from Ace MEtrix for Kohl's "Buy Now" back-to-school advertising

“I think it’s something that will capture your attention in a good way and make you think better about back to school shopping” Female 21-35

“I like that the ad was colorful and the music was upbeat. I also like that they showed a variety of the clothes they have for back to school. I really like Kohls and enjoy shopping there” Female 36-49

“I thought it was bright and fun and eye-catching. It definitely got my attention and I want to go to Kohls to shop for my boys now.” Female 21-35

The inclusion of “heading back or logging in” as a way to address ambiguity was adequate enough for parents, who scored “Buy Now” as the most Relevant of all the back-to-school ads. On top of that, Attention-grabbing visuals and a Likeable brand/products drove extremely high top-2 box purchase intent (77%).

 Walmart | “Back to School – Free 2 Day Delivery”

In one of the earliest ads to air, Walmart took a laissez-faire approach and balanced between the uncertain fate of schools reopening and virtual learning with clever copywriting. Walmart is arguably the most forward when it comes to addressing the pandemic in back-to-school ads. Besides Old Navy, Walmart’s “Free 2 Day Delivery” is the only one that features a student wearing a mask. Just 2% of parents addressed the item in their verbatim comments, a trait that falls in line with our earlier findings about face masks in ads.

The relatable messaging and music made for Likeable and Relevant back-to-school ads from Walmart. However, compared to its similar counterpart emphasizing curbside pickup, viewers found “Free 2 Day Delivery” more Attention-grabbing and Informative, which drove slightly greater purchase intent (+3%):

Ace Metrix component scores chart for Walmart's back-to-school advertising

Target | “Learning Mode”

Tuning out the times, “Learning Mode” charmed parents with an energetic, colorful product display and 50-cent deals. It is the only high scoring back-to-school ad that didn’t reference the unusual circumstances surrounding the shopping season. Despite that, just 5% of parents left comments that expressed negative sentiments towards this spot because of the pandemic, which can be summed up by one Female viewer: “It was fun and colorful but made me sad because my kids are not going back because of COVID 19.” 

The 67% of parents that reported positive purchase intent after watching “Learning Mode” enjoyed the upbeat nature and/or the deal. In fact, it performed better across component scores and purchase intent compared to two other back-to-school ads from Target – both of which portrayed virtual learning to some extent:

Ace Metrix Purchase Intent Chart for Target's Back-t0-School advertising

Dick’s Sporting Goods | “Day One”

In “Day One,” the brand itself took parents by surprise. Several viewers noted they’d never thought of Dick’s Sporting Goods for back-to-school shopping (or everyday clothing) but were now considering it after watching the ad. This response contributed to Solid Brandtastic signal and the highest score on Change, which measures the extent to which an ad communicates something new. Brand affinity, stylish clothes and diverse characters also played a part in the perceived new direction for Dick’s Sporting Goods:

Emotional Profile and Ad Personality for Dick's Sporting Goods "Day One"

“I am not aware of a Dick’s back to school campaign. To be honest, I’ve never thought of them for back to school shopping. I will now. They also mentioned in person or online school…very relevant.” Female 36-49

“It makes me think of Dick’s in a whole new way. The ad was quick moving and I enjoyed the characters.” Male 50+

“I don’t feel that I relate a ton to this ad, however I love the inclusion of multiple ethnicities and genders. It makes the ad feel new and fresh and I just wish it focused a little bit more on a complete look at the end for more fun.” Female 21-35

“Current, fresh, interesting, and relevant to the way we are living today.” Female 36-49

“The ad got me thinking about a new place to shop for back to school clothes.” Male 50+

JCPenney | “The Rhythm” & “Here to Help”

Nearly identical ads from JCPenney are among those resonating best with parents. Both “The Rhythm” and “Here to Help” are rooted in reality with scenes portraying families gearing up for the school year, whether that is on campus or at home. Coming off as more authentic, JCPenney’s attempts to relate with the unconventional nature of going back to school were more successful than its value-driven spot “Extra Savings.”

While “The Rhythm” and “Here to Help” outperformed “Extra Savings” across all component measures, the Relevant messaging and subsequent visuals made those two ads break through with much stronger Attention and Likeability scores. On top of that, the deals in “Extra Savings” came off as nothing new to parents which drove down its Change score:

JCPenney back-to-school 2020 ads

All together, addressing the ambiguity of back-to-school 2020 fared much better for JCPenney than discounts, with “The Rhythm” and “Here to Help” generating positive purchase intent among 69% of parents vs. 57% for “Extra Savings”:

Purchase Intent Chart for JCPenney back-to-school ads

There isn’t a “one size fits all” approach to Back-to-School advertising. Focusing on supplies and deals instead of trying to relate worked out better for Target whereas the opposite was true for JCPenney. That said, embracing the uncertainty to some extent is the norm among back-to-school ads. More often than not, viewers connected with and appreciated these efforts from brands so to forego them could run the risk of upsetting these same consumers.


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