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Back-to-School Advertising—The Seasonal Creep Begins

With Q2 now on the backburner and the end of summer closer than we’d like to admit – the inundation of back-to-school advertising is upon us. From Staples, Target, Office Depot, JC Penney and 3M Command Strip ads with MC Hammer, it’s already been an entertaining season. This year Office Depot debuted their back-to-school advertising on June 25th and Lands’ End mailed their back-to-school catalog in mid-June — before many kids were finished with the current school year! Are marketers pushing the envelope in their efforts to increase sales and is this just the beginning of the seasonal creep?

According to the National Retail Federation, the back-to-school period of July through September is the second most important sales season for retailers after the December Holidays. This year consumers are expected to spend $84 billion on back-to-school / college, a 10% increase over last year.

Around this already stressful period shoppers are looking for deals, information and convenience. According to Deloitte’s “2017 Back-to-School Survey” 60% of consumers likely began shopping before August with 11% starting earlier than July. However, the early shoppers are also the ones who spend more, with consumers who shop before August spending an average of $532 compared to those who begin after July who spend an average of $458 – so for retailers, reaching these early shoppers makes sense.


Broadly looking at National TV ad spend by month, we at Standard Media Index found the top categories that had above average advertising spend in the July through September (Q3) time frame were from the school-related retail sector:

  • School Related Supplies – Office Supplies and & Stationary, Printers & Office Machines
  • Fashion & Apparel -Fashion Accessories, Athletic Apparel & Footwear
  • Education Related – Education Services & Products
  • Food & Beverage -Cereals & Breakfast, Sports & Energy Drinks

These advertiser categories also increased their ad spend 13% in in Q3 2016, compared to previous years and focused on the month of August as the primary time to spend. We must note that 2016 was unique, however, as the Rio Olympics took place in August. We’re monitoring spend around these categories, and will do in-depth analysis to see how, or if, the trend changes in 2017.


The fight for consumer attention, time and money is critical for retailers. Traditional retailers are dealing with a multitude of challenges; retail sales falling, younger consumers are moving away from the hassles of shopping at brick and mortar stores and major retailers (and mall anchor stores) like Macy’s and JC Penney are closing stores creating uncertainty for the future of malls One study estimates that more than 8,000 retail stores will close this year alone. The pressure to succeed during this season is even more intense for retailers.

The back-to-school season is also affected by Amazon’s July 11th Amazon Prime Day. This year Amazon reported record sales for its third annual Prime Day, beating out its numbers for previous Black Friday and Cyber Monday shopping periods. Many retailers offered their own sale to compete with Amazon. Retailers such as Macy’s, Kohl’s and Dell reduced pricing and held a “Black Friday in July” sale.

While National TV is still the most prominent avenue for back-to-school advertising, social media has become almost as crucial. In fact, back-to-school is one of the most buzzed about shopping periods across social networks with Pinterest seeing more than 11 million users saving 45 million back-to-school related ideas in 2016. This uptick in volume is by design. Studies have found that Facebook ads and posts, Instagram posts, YouTube videos, Pinterest images and tweets are quite influential as many teens and parents are turning to social to research deals and find hot products. Something we’re passionate about at SMI is looking at where TV and Digital work together – and it seems clear back-to-school is a time when synergy is important.

A trend we’re seeing in marketing across the board is now becoming prominent in back-to-school advertising as well – cause-related marketing. Old Navy is highlighting incredible teachers through music videos, which is part of the company’s cause platform oNward! JC Penney is providing socks and underwear for low-income kids in its “Pair UP With JC Penney” program. And, Old Navy’s sister brand Gap, has centered its back-to-school campaign around inclusivity.

Back-to-school, whether we admit it or not, is really just the beginning of the holiday season – at least in the advertising world. Which, begs the question, how far behind are Halloween, Thanksgiving and Christmas? As the retail sector is challenged by e-commerce (and specifically Amazon), its searching for new opportunities to drive consumers into stores or to websites. The seasonal creep, however, is not limited to retail — the Hallmark Channel is starting its Countdown to Christmas on Oct 27th and many radio stations start their holiday music playlist in early November.

We’ll be monitoring the holiday advertising season closely, so check back soon for more updates on what’s to come. In the meantime – here is a look at the upcoming key dates and advertising categories that will likely be impacted.

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