Last year’s back-to-school season was riddled with uncertainties, leaving brands unsure of how to approach TV advertising. Those that ran ads empathized with the lack of certainty but did not dwell on it. TV ads remained energetic and cheerful, and narrators used equivocal phrasing like “however you go back” and visuals wavered between in-person and remote school settings.
While the pandemic is still present, back-to-school ad creatives and messaging have been all about getting back into (in-person) classrooms. Zero ads depicted virtual/remote learning, and just one (from Lysol) featured students wearing face masks.
Lysol, an unlikely back-to-school advertiser pre-pandemic, centered the messaging in “Keeping Here Healthy” around safety and its philanthropic initiative. According to Ace Metrix Creative Assessment, the ad was the top performing back-to-school ad overall (across Attention, Likeability, Information, Change, Desire and Relevance measures). Viewers thought the philanthropic messaging reflected positively on the brand, resulting in a strong Empower score and positive purchase intent (19% above the all-industry norm).
It’s not just the ad creatives that have mostly returned to normal. Back-to-school ads have actually been growing on TV for the past three years. After back-to-school ads amounted to an estimated $15.7 million in national TV ad spend from July 1 to Aug. 1 in 2019, spend grew to $16.8 million during the same stretch in 2020. This year, it hit $18.4 million as brands are eager to capitalize on a return to classrooms around the country.
Kohl’s, in particular, has driven a lot of that growth in 2021, with nearly $6.5 million spent on back-to-school spots in that timeframe.
Brands Play It Cool in Back-to-School TV Ads
Back-to-School advertising has catered to Gen Z trends for a while now. What’s more apparent this year than in the past is the number of TV ads that feature dance moves (reminiscent of viral TikTok choreography).
This trend worked well for Dick’s Sporting Goods. The brand’s “Welcome Back” campaign showed students dancing in trendy apparel and shoes. The music and the visuals stood out most as the best things about each of the ads. One spot in particular that focused on the range of shoe styles at Dick’s Sporting Goods performed particularly well in driving positive purchase intent (7% above retail advertising norms).
Old Navy also got kudos for coolness with its dance-oriented video ad. It scored highest of all the back-to-school TV ads on the Cool metric from Ace Metrix Creative Assessment.
Value-Based Messaging Is Back-to-School Norm
Deals and discounts are the name of the game when it comes to back-to-school ad messaging. In fact, 38% of back-to-school ads so far have scored on the Value metric from Ace Metrix Creative Assessment, which indicates when value-based messaging in video ads stand out to viewers.
Among back-to-school TV ads, viewers have connected most with the value messaging in Ross’s “Back to School: Like Yes.” The spot channeled the good feeling of getting a bargain at Ross rather than listed specific discounts or deals. The value-based brand itself stood out as the Single Best Thing about the spot. The 15-second ad was one of the highest-scoring of the season across Attention, Likeability, Information, Change, Desire and Relevance components.
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