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EDO TeamMarch 19, 20244 min read

From Hashtags to Heartstrings: Back-to-School TV Ad Insights for 2024

It might feel strange to think about Fall fashions while many schools are still enjoying Spring Break. But like a prepared parent making plans for summer camp, leading brands and agencies are already planning their ad strategies for the annual back-to-school rush, when kids and parents will be scrambling to check supplies, tech, apparel, and more off their shopping lists. 

To help retailers maximize their 2024 TV ad  buys, EDO analyzed the performance of every retail ad from last year – matching every brand airing with the online engagement generated in the moments after it aired. Then, we benchmarked that data against back-to-school campaigns across five major retailers: Kohl’s, Walmart, Macy’s, JCPenney, and Target. 

While last year saw a dip in back-to-school ad spend (despite rising performance), our latest research shows that the school shopping season remains a pillar of TV advertising. Back-to-school ads accounted for 5-10% of each retailer’s annual national TV spend, and these spots delivered outsized impact: In 2023, back-to-school ads were 13% more likely to drive online engagement than the retail category average. 

Here are a few other performance insights and creative trends that brands should consider.


August is primetime, but advertisers can’t overlook the fall months

For such a long-standing convention as back-to-school, it’s interesting that advertisers take varying approaches to the timing of their campaigns, which start as early as July and stretch into late October. 

Walmart kicked off 2023’s season on July 1st with its ad, “We Have Your Thing,” a short montage of school scenes and playful hashtags (e.g. “HowToSlayTheHallway”; “InHerFútbolStage”) that drove 20% higher engagement than the retail average.

Unsurprisingly, August was the busiest time for back-to-school campaigns. Specifically, the weeks of 8/7 and 8/14 saw the highest performance, with four of the five retailers analyzed registering double-digit lifts in engagement. Macy’s, which ran the shortest back-to-school TV campaign, narrowly targeted its spend around this buzz of late-summer activity, running its ads for less than a month from 7/24 to 8/21. 

Kohl’s carried out the longest campaign group, with its last placements extending into the week of 10/16. While its total volume of airings dropped significantly after August, the hundreds of weekly ads that continued to air drove significant performance gains. In fact, four of Kohl’s top five highest-engagement back-to-school weeks came in September and October. Heading into 2024’s back-to-school season, brands might want to follow Kohl’s lead by capturing Fall engagement.


Top of the class: Walmart and Target scored the most effective ad spots

Of the best performing ads in 2023, two brands dominated the charts.

Walmart claimed the top two spots. Days after its July 1st ad, the retailer began airing two more creatives: “That’s a Wrap” and “Mom Chat,” which each drove a whopping 203% lift in online engagement, compared to all other English-language creatives aired by the five retailers throughout 2023. 

Target snagged the next three most engaging ads, with a series of spots around the theme of “Totally Target.” The 15-second spots, featuring rites of passage like packed lunches, kids’ clothing, and school supplies, saw 26-32% higher engagement compared to the retail average.  


Emotional appeals soared, while offers and jingles stumbled

When it came to creative messaging, parents were looking for empathy. Target’s punchy 15-second spots offered an upbeat, aspirational promise of quality and affordability, which obviously resonated with audiences. Walmart’s clever use of hashtags and group texts felt relevant and personalized while emphasizing the retailer’s easy, one-stop online experience. 

Ads that leaned into straight offers, especially percentage discounts, were less effective. Macy’s “Back-to-School Sale” and Kohl’s “New School Styles at Old School Prices” featured at least three offers in 15 seconds, but neither achieved the same impact as the ads mentioned above.

Perhaps with a rapidly changing reality for school, from hybrid learning to AI-assisted curricula, parents and students are looking for solutions; not an escape, or a bargain, but a simple answer, so they can get back to everything else they need to do.


Don’t wait to plan your back-to-school media buy

It’s never too early (or late) to begin planning your back-to-school TV strategy. The data from last year show us that 2024 will be another year of heavy competition during the back-to-school season, with campaigns stretching up to four months and a variety of creative approaches vying for attention.

If you’re looking for a solution to optimize your TV ad outcomes against competitors, see how EDO can help — and sign-up for our “Know What Works” newsletter to stay current on the latest trends.