Who cares what to wear? Most effective back-to-school ads focused on gadgets

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Ten years ago, end-of-summer Sunday papers would be stuffed full of the stuff of horror for school-age kids: Clothes and school supplies. Department store catalog pages showcasing student models in school-ready jeans and tops, with backpacks slung haphazardly over their shoulders, would be sandwiched between circulars from such staples as Staples, hocking notebooks (the paper kind), pencils, cases in which to put pencils, rulers, markers and other tools of the learning trade. TV ads (like this one) would boast about back-to-school sales in 15- or 30-second spots that were as forgettable as the name of that second-grade substitute teacher. (Although I have a soft spot for this 1992 Trapper Keeper commercial; and this retro Sears commercial was ahead of its time, featuring a gadget—a typewriter!)

In a sense, the arrival of these ads heralded the end of summer and (relative) freedom.

Back-to-school shopping has evolved, just like most things tend to in the span of a decade. Don't get me wrong—the ads are still targeted to adolescent concerns, such as donning the coolest duds of the classroom crew—but just as some schools are now abandoning textbooks in favor of iPads for students, apparel has, in general, taken a back seat to the new “school supplies.”

“Notably, apparel retailers did not make much of a splash with consumers this back-to-school season,” Peter Daboll, CEO of Ace Metrix—a company that measures television advertising effectiveness—said in a statement. That may be less a failure of marketing than a basic shift in the industry. Students these days likely already have coerced their parents into purchasing the proper image from Abercrombie or Hollister, so what they need (want?) are laptops, notebooks (the electronic kind), flash drives and smart phones.

JCPenney was in fact the lone apparel retailer to make Ace Metrix's list of the top 10 back-to-school ads. But, as reported by my colleague Juan Martinez in the September issue of Direct Marketing News, its winning campaign—Pennies from Heaven—was a clever combination of a clothing pitch and a charitable effort. The campaign urged shoppers to round up their purchases to the nearest dollar, with the promise that those extra few cents would be dedicated to supporting local after-school programs.

For this effort, JCPenney was named the second most effective TV-based advertising campaign.

Microsoft's top-rated ad offered a free Xbox with the purchase of a Windows 7 PC, an offer also made by Dell, which Ace Metrix deemed the 9th most effective ad this year. As you can guess, many of the other winners focused on tech as well. Best Buy featured a girl showing off her brand-new laptop in the schoolyard, with the man representing “tech support” somewhat creepily attached to her back. Best Buy also placed tenth for a similar commercial, again with the Geek Squad rep being worn like a backpack. This image of tech support seems, to me, a little over-the-top and, well, heavy.

Staples' spot showcased an excited young teenager freaking out over a $5.99 flash drive, while Walmart's 7th place “Everything You Need for Back to College” campaign was basically an ad for smart phones.

But! In position number three in Ace Metrix's top-ten list is Crayola, whose campaign is timeless: Kids love crayons, and if you put a crayon in a kid's hand, creativity generally follows.

And these aren't space-age crayons. OK, they are dry-erase crayons—but that seems like the lowest-tech fun a schoolkid can have these days.

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