Selling Back-to-School: Coffee and Conversation

When I was six, my family was driving on a highway late at night. Streaks of headlights and taillights painted the dark. For the first time, I realized that each car held people living lives as important to them as mine was to me.

I wanted to know what those lives were, and to share my own.

So kick back with a cuppa or some freshly pressed cider, help yourself to a cider donut, and chat a while…

It’s that time of year again…the nights are getting a bit longer and crisper, and sometimes I can pick up a hint of coming frost. Here in the Northeast, the first tinges of color are appearing on leaves, and the apples, sunflowers, and balckberries are ripening…

And that means that the back-to-school ads are in full swing – on TV, on the radio, and even in our mailbox.

School is usually portrayed as a wonderful  place where kids go after a summer of boredom. They  get to hang out with old friends, and make an impression on the In Crowd. Having the perfect look, gadgets, and art supplies, or eating the right breakfast cereal, will ensure social, athletic, and academic success.

An illusion of school is a cool and happening place every kid wants to be is being sold as certainly as clothes, shoes, backpacks, technology, and art supplies.

This propaganda is pervasive and  unrealistic. In school, cliques abound, and some kids are the Cool Kids, while others aren’t, and no amount of money spent on trendy clothing or gadgets will change it. Aside from that, is looking good the reason parents send their children to school?

What if ads stopped presenting school as a social gathering place for dancing, happy children, and were realistic instead, showing how, a few weeks in, the excitement of the new will wear off under the day in, day out grind that is school?If they were honest that school can contain a great deal more drudgery than pageantry?

Of course, that probably wouldn’t sell as many clothes, backpacks, tech gadgets or art supplies….

But that’s not the worst…

It was intended to be funny.

I think it’s mean-spirited and insensitive – a version of kicking someone when they’re down. Most kids in school don’t have a choice.  They get those precious few weeks of relative freedom each summer, and then, ready or not, vacation is over and it’s back to work.

What if the televisions at every adult-oriented vacation resort played taunting ads celebrating the pending return to work? What if that was used as an excuse to sell things?

Kids have far less control of when and how their vacation time will be spent than adults do. That’s why shows like Phineas and Ferb and games like Minecraft are so popular with kids – they offer a fantasy of real, meaningful freedom most kids don’t experience in their own lives.

Do the people who design these ad campaigns consider how this  feels to kids? Indirectly or not, children are being told they’re not welcome during these hours of their parents’ lives. Yet, each fall, those ads roll out, without regard for the feelings of the people who are about to be tethered to school schedules, assigned more work to fill their non-school hours, and placed at the mercy of bullies – not just other students, but sometimes teachers and other school staff. Isn’t that the opposite of freedom?

Wouldn’t it be better to understand that another word for ‘students’ and ‘kids’ is ‘people’, and that all people, even young ones, have their own perspectives, their own priorities, and their own emotions? Wouldn’t things be better if advertisers respected that, and approached the coming school year with a sense of compassion for these young people?

Wouldn’t it be better to focus on helping each child to feel welcome and safe at school, to be seen and valued for their own individual strengths and character, regardless of the labels on their back-to-school duds, or which store they came from?

It might not be as good for selling things, but it could do wonders for how kids feel about that return to school, if they knew adults remembered that going back to school can be anxiety-ridden.

Once in a while, though, an ad gets it just right.

This message is a valuable one. It doesn’t hide the fact that going back to school can be less than wonderful. Maybe a facial tissue won’t solve every emotional schoolbus crisis, but a simple act of kindness can go a long way toward soothing the rough patches in life.

As for us, we plan to hit the back-to-school sales for art supplies – not items ticked off a school list, but simply things my kids want, that are far more budget friendly this time of the year.

And then? Well, we’ll go right on living our life as we please, no school added…we’ve got trips planned to musuems, a favorite apple orchard, libraries, gardens and farms, and more…because many of our favorite places are about to become a whole lot less crowded, with the mass exodus back into the classroom.

What are you feelings and thoughts about back to school ads and attitudes? If your kids go to school, how does that change your life? Theirs? Are they eager, or longing for more freedom? Are you? If your kids don’t go to school, what are your plans for the onset of the back-to-school season?

I love learning about others’ perspectives and experiences! Please feel free to share yours in the box below – and I’ll pour the apple cider, and put out a fresh plate of cider donuts right next to those fresh crayons that are for just anybody to draw on the butcher paper tablecloth, cause that’s how we roll! =)

Modeling for a NOT-back-to-school ad? ;D
Modeling for a NOT-back-to-school ad? ;D


  1. I was the weird kid that LOVED going back to school. Seeing back to school stuff in the stores made me excited, and buying school supplies was one of the most enjoyable traditions of my childhood. I even love the smell of freshly sharpened pencils. I agree with you though about that Staples ad. If that was my dad, I’d put him on Craig’s List and trade up for a better one. What a jerk!

    • I also loved school – but, in my case, there was also an element of escape from a volatile home where yelling and hitting were daily occurrences…

      What I most loved was the learning. With the advent of easy internet access, my kids, who, at 14 and 11, have never been to school, learn rampantly and as they please.

      Of course, they also live in a home that tends to be peaceful and happy, and where their wishes and priorities are respected, so they don’t share my need to escape…

      And school supplies and freshly sharpened pencils – YUM!

  2. I had a rough school experience. It wasn’t school itself(which I loved). But, the other kids. I was always different(liking school was part of that) and never really made friends easily. And I was teased. It actually made me start dreading going to school.

    So far both my kids love school. They were both(and ok, me too) looking forward to it starting again. For the boy(in pre-k), it’s still more play than anything else, so I hope he’ll continue to enjoy it. The schools, in theory, are attempting to battle the bullying issue. But, my daughter is so much like me, I worry she’ll go through the same thing I did. But, for now, she’s still enjoying it.

    • Sounds like we had very similar school experiences. In my case, liking Star Trek before 1987 (when The Next Generation debuted, and I was a college freshman; dang timing!) was definitely a way to be labeled a freak. Add to that loving school, learning, and Shakespeare, not caring about fashion, and not dating until well into my senior year, and, well…

      Eden and I were outcasts together, and we made the most of it. =)

      As for my kids, they could go if they wanted. So far, neither has, and I hope they don’t. I love being able to give them the freedom to learn their way, and not to need to worry nearly so much about bullies and other things that seem to be far less of a problem for kids who don’t go.

      It’s cool that your kids are loving it. Kids should be happy, IMO.

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