As the 2021-2022 school year kicked off here in Madison, Wisconsin, we sat down with some of the moms and dads of The Digital Ring to get their thoughts on popular back-to-school commercials from both a parent and a marketer perspective.
Read on for some of our biggest takeaways as we pack our lunches, load up the buses, and wait for the leaves to change!
We watched three different commercials
We showed five of TDR’s parents three different back-to-school ads: Kleenex’s “Commitment to Care” campaign, Target’s “Back to School: Rock It” campaign, and Walmart’s “Let’s Get it Started” campaign.
Kleenex dives deep into the emotions that come with entering middle school — cleverly weaving their product into the creation of care packages for grade school friends.
A classic “back-to-school bop”, this commercial from school supply powerhouse Target is upbeat from start to finish.
Walmart aims for a balance between emotion and energy, featuring a variety of dads ordering the perfect accessories for their kids.
Which “hat” are we wearing?
At The Digital Ring, we often talk about “wearing our business hats first”. While we’re a bunch of creatives who delight in eye-catching graphic design and witty copywriting, everything we do starts with — and supports — our clients’ long-term business goals.
In these interviews, we asked our coworkers to wear both their parent hats and their marketing hats in turn. Watching a commercial while picturing your little one on their first day of school is different from observing ad elements with a keen eye for strategy. We wanted to honor it all!
Parent hats on first
As parents first, here’s what our coworkers had to say about the commercials we watched.
Balancing positivity with realism
One of the biggest themes in our conversations was the emotional reality of sending a kid back to school. This time can be stressful for everyone involved — and while it’s great for advertisers to validate parents’ mixed feelings, it’s also important to keep the ultimate message positive.
Most of our parents gravitated towards ads that struck a balance between being aspirational and realistic. We saw this play out in a few ways:
- Some parents felt that the Kleenex spot, while heartfelt, made them even more anxious about their kids having a tough time transitioning to a new grade. Others felt encouraged to have more emotional conversations with their children themselves.
- A few questioned whether the scenes in each commercial were feasible. Regarding the Kleenex advertisement, will most students actually be given an opportunity to share their feelings with their peers? Probably not. And concerning Walmart’s spot, do that many parents purchase key supplies like backpacks without their kids’ input? How many first days of school begin with an off-the-bus party?
- The Target commercial, though primarily targeted at young students themselves, was all-in-all the most well received by TDR’s parents. A classic upbeat vibe without any far-fetched situations was a safe play to resonate with a wide audience.
Advertising will never fully emulate real life — it presents a skewed perception of the world around us for a reason — but our parents found value in commercials that felt attainable.
Marketing hats on next
Switching over to a marketer lens, here’s how TDR’s parents felt about the three different commercials.
Different ads have different audiences
First things first: Every brand has a different target audience — and most individual advertisements focus on an even smaller subset of that group.
We felt that the Kleenex spot was primarily directed at parents (though the candid emotions certainly bring value to younger viewers, as well). The Target commercial was almost exclusively focused on students, getting them hyped up for the year ahead (and all the wonderful supplies they might be able to get). The Walmart spot fell more in the middle, initially targeting parents (primarily fathers) and ending with scenes that resonate more with children, too.
When viewing the ads as a parent, each individual had a more personal, emotional reaction to the commercials. When considering the campaigns as a marketer, everyone stepped back to imagine how the target audience — which they might not be a part of themselves — would feel.
Diversity and inclusion is vital
Diversity, equity, and inclusion has been the focus of many recent conversations at The Digital Ring. With that top of mind, a few things stood out — for good and for bad — in each commercial.
- In the Kleenex spot, we noticed many young boys being interviewed about their emotions. This was a welcome change from media that primarily represents girls as having strong feelings.
- The Target advertisement featured traditional gender role reversal in multiple spots, as well as children with disabilities. Most parents responded positively to the way this representation was naturally woven in — though it did beg the question of what the casting process looked like. Did they authentically include many different kids? Or was it sterilly structured to look good on the surface?
- We felt as though the Walmart commercial attempted to make a point about fathers being more included in their children’s lives than traditional gender roles would have us believe — but that it fell a bit flat in execution. By having the dads ordering school supplies online (and only during brief moments in their work days) it seemed the brand inadvertently emphasized the idea of men not being as hands-on with their parenting.
Brands find themselves in a tricky position when it comes to representation in their ads: It almost feels that no matter what casting or writing decisions they make, there will be something to criticize.
What we felt mattered most was consistency and ultimate accountability. A brand who routinely speaks about inclusion, regularly puts out content with a diverse range of people, and “practices what they preach” feels very different than one who occasionally highlights a minority group of individuals in one single spot.
Be wary of “taking on too much”
Commercials are short — and while we understand the desire to “do it all” here at TDR, we also believe it’s important to focus on one single message in each piece of marketing.
The Kleenex advertisement kept the focus on emotions and human connection, only briefly including their products in a natural way. The Target ad, on the other hand, was product focused throughout — particularly highlighting how those products could be used in fun, exciting ways.
We felt that the Walmart commercial was the one that tried to take on too much at once. They highlighted their ecommerce ability, made a point about parent roles, and attempted to build student excitement for the year ahead all within one minute. Parts of it worked well — but it would have been a stronger spot with a more direct focus.
Heading back to school is different for everyone
At the end of the day, everyone experiences this time of the year differently: parents, students, and brands alike. There is no “perfect” way to approach sending your child off to a new school year — just as there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to a fall advertising campaign.
In a world of varied learning styles, personal perceptions, and day-to-day pain points, we do well to keep our focus on the people that count. What do our own kids need from us? What will resonate with our unique audience? How can we balance current reality with future aspirations?