Saturday, August 23, 2008

Back to school marketing: High School Conformity: the Musical!!!

The back to school retail crush is the second largest moneymaker for retail stores after Christmas. It’s when teen and kids apparel manufacturers roll out the latest styles and new clothes are bought for the next school year.

From a marketing perspective, back to school advertising fascinates me because of not only the sleazy shillery used to position the retail brand as the ‘arbiter of cool’ but also because the message must appeal to both kids and their parents.

The extent of my back to school shopping will be confined to gasoline and overpriced textbooks. For this, I’m thankful because I don’t have to endure the mania and feelings of inadequacy commonly experienced by kids half my age going back to school or entering high school for the first time. I remember the trepidation and anxiety of that first day. It was like a heady brew of excitement, untested confidence, and seriously laughable preppy thug bravado.

Kids going to school have enough to worry about, so why does it seem that retail marketers are now making them worry about whether they have the right clothes? I’m also sensing that the implicit message of these ads – conformity creates credibility – has become distastefully more palatable in recent years. It’s a common truism that having cool back to school clothes is important, but the difference with these ads is that you must now have the right back to school clothes. Like the retail big-box contagion spreading commercial infection across the suburban landscape, youth personal style and individualism is being nullified in favour of The Standard.

Who is The Standard? They’re the star of the back to school ad. They’re Nietzsche’s Ubermench, only in high school. The Standard is guided as much by rationality and reason as the desire to confirm. They’re identifiable by prominent logos and popstars brandished on neutral and unoffensively coloured clothing. They take a leading but never standout role. This is the person (notice that I didn’t say individual…) who all students strive to be.

How is The Standard advertised? Pay close attention in back to school ads for any of the following portrayals of The Standard:

  • 25-year olds playing high school freshman performing highly acrobatic choreography in school hallways
  • Token black hip-hop dancers shown immediately adjacent to The Standard (notice that The Standard is invariably white)
  • Lip syncing lame lyrics, for example “I’m going back to school, and it’s so cool”
  • And finally, The Standard is always shown as fitting in among the other Standards. This is critical.

So with that short preface, let’s evaluate some of the worst offenders in back to school marketing:

SEARS: Don’t just go back, Arrive

This spot amazes me. So Vanessa Hudgens, The Standard of High School Musical has been paid to lip sync and pulsate to an over-synthesized song about going back to school. If you can’t stomach the commercial enough to watch (and I can’t say I blame you), her dilemma is that she can’t decide whether to be The Preppy, The Rocker, or The Glam on her first day back. In the final act of the commercial, these three styles merge together to create some trashy-looking excuse for an outfit.

The tagline, "Don’t just go back, arrive" is intriguing and memorable. It’s stance is almost threatening and bullish to teenagers who are asked to rise to the challenge and go back to school as an indomitable fashion force.

Effective? I’m not sure… How easily will kids remember that this message is associated to Sears? Overall, this ad really doesn’t offend me because the message still resonates with the attitude that it’s ok to have a personal style. They’re also not hocking actual articles of clothing, more like an assemblage of awkward, juxtaposed pieces.

Listen closely to the lyrics though. My biggest criticism of this ad is the lyric “Be smart, look sharp, if you’re gonna survive”…um, what???

JC PENNEY: Get the look – The Breakfast Club

At first blush, this is a pretty lame excuse for a commercial. The director has reproduced and dehydrated the original John Hughes movie down to a highly clip-focused one minute homage. They even cast kids to look like Ali Sheedy, Emilio Estevez, Judd Nelson, Molly Ringwald, and Anthony Michael Hall. The cover version of Simple Minds’ ‘Don’t you forget about me’ kinda blows, but alright…that’s what kids listen to today.

With the exception of the campaign tagline “Get the look” which whiffs of conformity, there’s nothing really offensive about this ad. But it’s stupid right? I mean, the people for whom The Breakfast Club was a relevant movie are now in their late 30s and early 40s. Why would they care about back to school shopping..............?

Wait, so you mean this ad is really targeted at the parents and not the kids? Smart.

TARGET: The Jonas Brothers

I’m really sorry for posting this, but we’re a youth marketing agency and the Jonas Brothers are a highly influential brand to our target demographic. Nothing offensive here, other than perhaps the Jonas Brothers themselves. It’s your standard celebrity endorsement ad, not a whole lot of conformity, other than perhaps subtle message to shop at Target because that’s where the Jonas Brothers were advertised.

Effective? Maybe for teenage girls. It depends on how well they can convince their moms that celebrity endorsements are more powerful than cost-savings, so therefore they should choose to shop at Target.


A bunch of ads here, all of which are uncompromising in their sleazy salesmanship and unabashed lack of morals.

#1: The Kiss

What an appeal to terrified moms fretful over how their children will be accepted and well-prepared for school. Wal-Mart’s value proposition is, of course, its cost-savings over competitors. This message is prominently made clear in the voiceover at the end. I also think that the actress playing the mom needs to lay off the Dramamine. She sounds like she’s lucid dreaming when uttering the line “that’s why I go to Wal-Mart”….no, that’s why you’re hypnotized into going to Wal-Mart!

#2: Hannah Montana

Wow…why is that 12 year old little girl dressing like she’s 23?

This is only a half-spot, 15-second commercial so it packs a small punch. The difference between this and a longer spot is that the focus is on the articles of clothing rather than the overall style (this would have required a story arc). And do kids entering school need to ‘bring it on’? Bring what on?

#3: “I can’t go with her…”

“I like your top” – there, 10 seconds in and the audience has already been informed that the reason why this new girl is allowed to sit at the lunch table with the other girls is because they think her style fits in with theirs.

And that’s really what back to school advertising is all about. Yes, I’ve left the worst commercial to the end because I think Wal-Mart really made no qualms about the message it wanted to convey in this spot. How about the line “she needs to feel good about herself without breaking my budget”? This assertion only reinforces the insecurity of many young girls to feel included and popular by having the right clothes. Obviously ‘feeling good’ comes from only having the right clothes for back to school, and not from a more intrinsic, self-derived confidence with oneself.

Wow Wal-Mart, what a stinker.

But the question that I just want answered is why is this older woman talking to herself in the middle of a busy high school hallway….?

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