5 back-to-school ads that do things differently

Back-to-school ads used to be easy to make and boring to watch. But that’s all changed now, as these ads show.

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Back in the day, you knew where you stood with back-to-school ads. Whether they were selling clothing, stationery or computers, you could expect happy, laughing child models, doting mothers and an overwhelming sense of blandness. 

In the world of 2010s, though, that will no longer cut it. Kids are no longer passive drones, blindly sucking up whatever the living room TV offers. Instead, they’re restless on their phones and tablets, seeking out content that intrigues them, and actively engaging with it when they find it. 

So how can back-to-school advertising adapt to this new reality? Here are five successful examples of how to do it. If you’ve spotted any others, please let us know in the comments!

01. PacSun

Not sure how to reach today’s younger generation, or speak their language? Don’t worry, there’s a YouTube influencer who can do it for you. With huge followings, these immensely savvy youngsters will instantly make your brand seem cool, just by talking about it in the casual, unfiltered way they talk about anything and everything. 

Californian clothing retailer PacSun is the latest brand to tap into the Millennial market in this fashion. For their 2016 back-to-school campaign, they’ve teamed up with four YouTube stars from line fashion and beauty community StyleHaul, who have more than 3.5 million subscribers between them. 

In these sponsored videos, Macbby11, BeyondBeautyStar, MyLifeAsEva and MamaMiaMakeup talk about PacSun's Bullhead Denim and encourage viewers to submit their own ideas for style combinations. Their enthusiasm for the clothes is infectious, and anyone who can get teen viewers to actively seek out and watch a single advert that’s more than five minutes long is clearly doing something right. (Macbby11’s even features movie-style outtakes at the end. Seriously.)

02. Dell

Last year Dell, like PacSun, harnessed the viral power of YouTube celebrities for its back-to-school ads. But for 2016 it’s taking a slightly different approach, drawing instead on young achievers in the professional fields of fashion, science and technology. 

A series of specially commissioned short videos created by Y&R features Taylor Wilson, a 21-year-old nuclear physicist, Isabella Rose, a 14-year-old fashion designer and artist, and João Pedro Motta, a 19-year-old Brazilian tech entrepreneur. Aiming to sell their 2-in-1 laptop-tablet hybrid to the teen market, the idea is to show how the right technology can help achieve your dreams. They’ve hedged their bets a little, though, also including ultra-perky YouTube star Jenn McAllister (aka Jennxpenn) in their campaign.

03. Office depot

The phenomenon that is Pokemon Go has proved to the world that augmented reality (AR) is the future. But a number of brands have known that for a long time. Back in 2014, for instance, Office Depot used AR to target young back-to-schoolers, with a mobile campaign that integrated image recognition into its shopping app. 

To get kids to download the app, Office Depot created an interactive in-store display that essentially let you pose for a short video with alternative rock band R5, then share it on social media. It was all executed superbly, and the results were very impressive, making what could have been a naff idea into a brilliant one. 

The AR experience was built on HP’s Aurasma technology which has also been utilised by the likes of Disney, Argos, Budweiser and Best Western. The campaign also linked in with the band’s huge network of fans to amplify the message further.

04. Tesco 

This TV ad promoting UK retailer Tesco’s F+F range of back-to-school clothing had a familiar message, but it came with a unique visual twist. Created by award-winning animation director Juan Pablo Zaramella and producer Alan Dewhurst, it combined stop-motion animation and pixilation (a technique that animates photos of real people) to create an eye-catching mixture of reality and imaginative fantasy. 

Commissioned through WARL, the 30-second ad consisted of 750 frames, all composited from multiple layers of imagery, and the results entranced kids and parents alike. The production company was Hanrahan and the animation company Can Can Club.

05. Old Navy

You can still get away with doing a ‘traditional’ back-to-school ad if you hit the right note, and this spot with hip comedian Amy Schumer does just that. Importantly, it’s the parent here who’s clueless and the kids (including tween celebrities like Thomas Barbusca and Skai Jackson) who patiently explain where to buy the best clothes, in this commercial for Old Navy. This fun ad was created by New York agency Chandelier Creative.


Tom May is a freelance writer and editor specialising in design and technology. He was previously associate editor at Creative Bloq and deputy editor at net magazine, the world's best-selling magazine for web designers. Over two decades in journalism he's worked for a wide range of mainstream titles including The Sun, Radio Times, NME, Heat, Company and Bella.