- Back-to-school advertising this year has fallen 70% on national television as U.S. retailers pull back on their promotional activities. Retailers spent $23 million on back-to-school ads from June 22 to Aug. 8, compared with $76 million a year earlier, according to Kantar data.
- Only six retailers are advertising this year, compared with 100 in 2019, making it unlikely that spending on back-to-school ads will be anywhere near last year's $133 million total during the season through September. There is a possibility that advertising will increase as more students return to classrooms later in the year or in 2021, Kantar notes.
- The tone of back-to-school ads has changed dramatically since last year for those retail brands that are promoting around the season. Instead of showing happy families shopping for school supplies and clothes, or featuring students dancing in hallways and excelling in the classroom, the ads focus on online ordering, at-home delivery and curbside pickup, distance learning and going outside. The few ads that show students in school depict them wearing face masks, per Kantar.
The steep decline in back-to-school advertising measured by Kantar indicates how the coronavirus pandemic has continued to disrupt seasonal campaigns for marketers, even nearly five months after the health crisis ramped up in the U.S. Many advertisers withdrew from promotional activity this summer to save on media budgets, and the few remaining ones have shifted the tone of their creative to match the public mood in recognizing how personal safety is top-of-mind for consumers.
Back-to-school season is the second-most important time of year after the winter holidays for retailers, and may portend that the upcoming shopping season also will face significant disruptions. As with back-to-school ads, holiday campaigns likely will need to showcase services like curbside pickup instead of typical "doorbuster deals" that inspire shoppers to crowd into stores and wait in long lines. Emphasizing savings and value also are especially important themes for marketers this year as many families cope with the economic strain of the pandemic, Kantar suggests.
Despite the disruptions, the researcher sees an opportunity for brands to ramp up their marketing activities during the back-to-school season, which typically is very crowded with advertising. Because students will need supplies for distance learning or when they return to class, "cutting out advertising altogether could be a costly mistake," according to Kantar.
Back-to-school shopping patterns reflect the fluid environment for students and their families, with more people expecting distance learning to be prominent at least for the rest of 2020. The percentage of U.S. consumers who expect some or all classes to be online this year rose to 63% this month from 55% in July, a separate National Retail Federation survey found. The portion of people who plan to buy products for online learning rose to 76% from 72% during that period, which indicates that makers of computer equipment, mass merchants and electronics retailers have an opportunity to stand out among rivals with marketing and sales promotions for those products.