School

“Back to School” Ads Are Really Awkward This Year

A bunch of pencils banded together by the loop of a face mask.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Getty Images Plus.

No one knows what the school year will look like, only that it will be a mess. It will involve some location in space and time where students attempt to absorb information and social skills via a screen or a teacher or private tutor straining expressions of warmth and enthusiasm from behind a face covering and possibly a piece of plexiglass. No matter what the exact setup, everyone who is a child or has or cares about children is sure to spend at least a bit of the impending fall worrying about how many people are going to be dying as a result of politically motivated attempts to have normal school. Wow, we’re sure in hell here.

This hasn’t stopped major retailers from mounting their annual back-to-school campaigns more or less as usual. While many steer clear of language suggesting that school is a place that children are physically going back to, a sampling culled from websites on Tuesday, July 21, indicates that … well, let’s just say that the big-box stores are having an awkward time too. Here, we evaluate their attempts.

Target

A Target ad showing school supplies and smiling kids with backpacks
Target

Wherever it is that these children are carrying backpacks to, we can tell they’re excited because we can see the insides of their mouths—a rare sight in these masked times. What’s also a little jarring is that there are no parents losing their minds in this picture? Anyway, Target also has another image worth examining in their specific section on school supplies:

An ad showing school supplies and a child sitting at a table painting
Target

This child looks like she is having a really nice time and is, again, not in the presence of an exhausted parent or teacher PPE’d to high heaven. The ad does say the words distance learning.

Grade: Just seems like they lightly edited some copy from the Before Times. I give this one a fail.

Walmart

An ad showing a child perched on the arm of a couch with a laptop and the words "Your school prep HQ"
Walmart

We have a tiny bit more emotional accuracy here. While there is a backpack, it is not attached to the child, which, if you keep your expectations nice and low, is an acknowledgment of the situation. The child is clearly sitting at home, so points for that too. Her seat on the side of the couch, soles of her shoes digging into the cushions, is a further allusion to reality: Things are precarious.

Grade: Tepid pass.

Office Depot

An ad showing a child holding a computer and another holding a sign. To the left of them are the words "Low prices all back-to-school season long."
Office Depot

Sure, this ad says “back-to-school,” but with one child holding up a computer with a Zoom classroom and another child holding up the word school scribbled on a note card in blood-red … Office Depot understands what’s happening here well enough.

Grade: Pass.

Pottery Barn Kids

Four kids are seen close together with backpacks. Text on the right reads "Packed with Personality" and offers a deal.
Pottery Barn Kids

How is this one entirely about backpacks? Why are there four children smooshed within 6 feet of one another? How is it that the monstrosities with wheel-y handles are allowed to survive the pandemic?

Grade: NO.

The Children’s Place

A stack of polos is seen alongside text advertising polos.
The Children’s Place

The migraine-inducing color palette, the refusal to use articles like for and to, the enthusiasm for, at a time of historic slobbery, POLOS! … The Children’s Place just does not fucking care how anyone feels right now.

Grade: Pass, for sticking to its own convictions (selling stuff).

Kohl’s

Kids holding hands next to "Back to School!" text
Kohl’s

Heading back, logging in, one or the other, depending on the day of the week, if you have a small cough, if anyone in the community has died recently, great.

Grade:  The playful paper plane just sets a weird tone here, I think. Fail.

Amazon

A man at a table seen within an ad designed to look like a video chat.
Amazon

Amazon is doing one of its bizarre livestreams to advertise school goods (which, confusingly, include Alexas). Here’s a sample: “We don’t exactly know how school and where school is going to be taking place for everyone as the school year comes up, but what we do know is that learning is going to be important. … We are going to hook you up with all of the good information you need in terms of what you need to put together your virtual classroom, your at-home classroom.”

Grade: I was just really hoping that the tech and cultural behemoth taking over our lives was going to have some genuine information to dispense on how to navigate this mess, instead of “buy our spying products.” I realize now that my expectations were too high. The fail here is mine.

Staples

A pencil and a glue stick seen around the text "Savings All Season."
Staples

This is plain and unobtrusive, and references “the school year ahead.” Yep, it is a school year; it is in the future; it is happening. This is accurate. ”Everything to learn anywhere.” We do not speak of the reason as to why we will be learning from “anywhere.” The learning from anywhere—it is ahead of us.

Grade: Everything is fine!!!!

Walgreens

A student and a teacher wearing masks seen near the text "Go back. Give back."
Walgreens

Finally: masks. Though, I mean, is this an ad for school supplies or Walgreens’ corporate do-goodness? Is the teacher a little too close to that child? What is the case count and status of ICU beds in their area? Never mind, who cares. This ad achieves a rare feat in visually acknowledging that the new school year is going to take place in a pandemic.

Grade: This is the only good ad.

For more on the challenges of going back to school this year, listen to a candid discussion with four teachers about how they’re really feeling about the 2020 school year.