Making the grade

It comes once a year, like Christmas. And while spending for back-to-school may not rank against the frenzied, yuletide season, most parents dish out enough cash to get retailers excited -- an estimated $1.4 billion this fall, according to the Retail Council of Canada.

It comes once a year, like Christmas. And while spending for back-to-school may not rank against the frenzied, yuletide season, most parents dish out enough cash to get retailers excited — an estimated $1.4 billion this fall, according to the Retail Council of Canada. Even in today’s sluggish economy, there is still a need for pencils and books, and, of course, the latest fall fashions, because who wants to be wearing last year’s jeans? Strategy polled five creative minds to find out which back-to-school campaigns got the best grades.

Tony Miller, CD

Sharpe Blackmore Euro RSCG, Toronto

Grand & Toy, created by Harrod & Mirlin/FCB:

(There are two spots: in one, a guy wrestles with an inflatable doll he has tucked in his locker; in the second, an attractive girl gets a love letter from a pip-squeak. Both are woven into a contest to win a trip to see Blink-182.)

These are fun. They’re [each] a great example of a promotional campaign with a nice doughnut to deliver the goods. The casting rings true and the ad does what it’s supposed to: It leaves a smile while selling product. The target will get a kick out of it, and the idea that there’s all kinds of contraband lurking in the lockers of Canada’s high school crowd is, well, a basic truth.

Wal-Mart, created by Publicis/SMW Advertising:

(The spots feature kids sitting around debating style versus price.)

These make me squirm a bit. Pimply faced teenagers sitting in a wood-panelled basement, pontificating on the virtues of discount fashion? C’mon, guys. At their most erudite, teenagers sound doltish. Even with quick cuts and editing magic, these sideburn-wearing, zit-sporting ‘yoots’ fail to convince.

Future Shop, created by Donner USA:

(A young man’s parents drop him off at his college dorm, at which point he feels exhilarated.)

My first though was ‘Yikes! A groovy track and a hand-held camera – prepare for no idea.’ But I was wrong. This ad has a subterranean way of getting to the thrill of your first place away from home. The parents buy the stuff, set up their son in his dorm, and he slaps on the headphones in pure bliss. It’s not so long ago for me that I can still remember the feeling of absolute freedom. Future Shop captures it, and gets a whole mess of product into the ad at the same time.

Zellers, created by Ogilvy & Mather:

(A couple of suits test out their denim line on old folk. They are happy when they get thumbs-down because it means kids will like the fashions.)

Though this spot dips into the old well that says ‘Let’s make old people look dotty and stupid,’ it still works. It’s a funny spot. Kind of like how writers and art directors feel when they show their work to the Account Execs. If the AE’s hate it, then we’re onto something! The ‘How do they do it?’ theme carries over into radio, which, though it doesn’t play as well as the TV, still stands out. Zellers obviously buys into the notion that interesting work will get noticed.

David Kelso, CD

MacLaren McCann, Toronto

Staples, created in-house:

(”Most Wonderful Time of the Year’ features a dad overjoyed while shopping for back-to-school supplies with his demoralized children. A second spot stars a cute puppy that crawls into a boy’s backpack and, in a third, a young girl calls into a radio station and attempts to convince the DJ that school really starts in December.)

Any parent that I’ve ever talked to thinks it really is a wonderful time of year, as far as they’re concerned. They’re getting through to you the idea that you can get all the stuff you need for your kids, but you’re also connecting to a human truth that it is the season they are going to leave. I think it’s good-spirited fun. They’ve got another spot I’m not sure I like so much as a piece of creative, where a young girl calls into a radio station. It’s a bit more on the cheese meter.

Andy Macaulay,

founding partner

Zig, Toronto


I think that back-to-school is a tough advertising channel. It happens every year, so you have a whole lot of people who have mined the territory for great insights and great advertising ideas. It’s tough to find new ideas. The other thing is that it’s commodity land, where a lot of retailers sell the same stuff to the same people, for the same reason. So a lot of back-to-school spots look similar. [One solution] is to find smarter or different insights about the audience, and this is an example of that. The insight is from a parent’s perspective, as opposed to a kid’s perspective. Is it that revolutionary that people are relieved when their kids go back to school? It probably isn’t, but they execute it in a charming way that makes me laugh every time I see it.

Grand & Toy:

A second idea is to give consumers an extra reason to [go to the store], and I think the Grand & Toy spot is an example of that, because it has a MuchMusic promotion woven into it. I think they’ve done it in a fun way, and I expect it will get noticed. But repeatable success comes from a good strategy and that means understanding what a given brand is trying to do in the back-to-school window. How does a brand take advantage of that, in a way that is consistent with the overall brand promise? Ninety per cent of the year, Grand & Toy’s primary audience is adults. And then along they come with this, and that’s why they have to offer an extra reason to come to the store. I’m sure it will work, but it doesn’t connect to the brand for me.


I infer from this spot that teens don’t think of Wal-Mart as a place to buy stylish clothes, so they’re trying to go at that directly. But teens have such a strong bullshit meter, that they smell attempts to market to them. It’s clearly a staged situation, and teens will look at it and say, ‘No thanks.’ For Wal-Mart, I think it feels inconsistent with their other advertising. You can make the argument they’re talking to a different audience and therefore they should talk to them in a different way. But the consumer doesn’t look at it [like that]. Each thing contributes to the brand.

Randy Stein, CD

Palmer Jarvis DDB, Vancouver

The Gap, created in-house:

(Actress Juliette Lewis dances with robots.)

I don’t know what to make of this spot, but I love it. The spot opens on two guys with robot-like heads (the band Daft Punk) dancing very robotically. After a few seconds, Juliette Lewis joins them and they all dance awkwardly together. That essentially is the spot. I know it’s not a traditional ‘back-to-school’ spot but I have no doubt it’s targeted to that shopper. Again, I have no clue what the idea is, but it’s cool, understated, and makes The Gap hip again.

Payless Shoe Source, created by Barkley Evergreen & Partners, Kansas City, Mo:

(Kids hang around lockers and the audience sees their shoes.)

Here’s an idea. We need a back-to-school spot – so let’s show a bunch of kids in front of their school lockers wearing shoes. Where’s the idea here? Or forget the idea, where’s the hip, cool execution that will make teens want to buy their shoes at Payless? Advertising to kids is tough. Being cool, hip and on the cutting-edge is tough. This spot doesn’t even try. It takes clean-cut, wholesome kids and shows them wearing nice, clean shoes. They may as well super the words ‘We’re not cool.’ Quite frankly, this spot may do more harm than good. This is back-to-school advertising at its most mediocre.

Janet Kestin, Co-CD

Ogilvy & Mather, Toronto


The one spot that sticks out is the ‘Most Wonderful Time of the Year,’ which I think is the best back-to-school commercial ever. That spot is several years old. The new ones – with the puppy and the radio station – are different. They’ve gone into this sweeter place that seems to be more about selling product, whereas the first tapped into an emotion parents experience. Every parent in the world recognizes [himself or herself] in that spot. I think it’s a rare example of true universal appeal. The two others are more sentimental and cute, but they are not tapping into a real emotion anymore.

Future Shop:

It’s style over substance. There’s a lot going on – there are quick cuts, and I thought the track was interesting. But it didn’t really motivate me, and I would have a question about who the target is.


Last year, I thought that these spots were quite nice for Wal-Mart, because I generally find their real-people ads stilted. Those young people are quite natural, although I did feel like some words were put in their mouths. I find it hard to believe that a kid looks at price before style. That brought a note of falseness into something that is quite true. Last year, there was a refreshing honesty in it, but it’s ho-hum this year.