Mad World: Back to School

Kelsey Wallace
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Kelsey Wallace is an editor in Portland, Oregon. Follow her on Twitter if you like TV and pictures of dogs.

Well, it’s time to go back to school again. And you know how I know? Because of television commercials, which give me all the information I need on what it takes to be a cool kid these days. (Hint: channel your favorite High School Musical Version of Glee character, then press fast forward.)

For example, the above Kmart ad lets us old folks know that kids these days like dancing, singing, rewriting Go-Go’s lyrics, and dressing extras in a John Hughes movie—complete with faux neckties, floppy hats, and sweater vests. Oh, and they like moving fast. Really fast. It’s cool, OK? Case in point:

So this Macy’s ad is pretty much exactly the same as the Kmart one, except the school in this case is in the future (you can tell because everything is white and modern-looking). I don’t have kids and I’m too old to be targeted in this ad, so someone help me out here. Is being a kid today all about pretending you’re in an 80s cover band? No, it’s not all about that, because sometimes you have to be a pop star, hanging outside with your friends in the grass… acting sexy in a way that makes adult bloggers (hi, that’s me) uncomfortable. Like in this, other Kmart back-to-school ad:

Out of all of the back-to-school ads I’ve seen so far this season, the only outlier is this one from Target. I say it’s an outlier because it appears to be for parents instead of kids. At least, I’m guessing that’s the case because it’s a total Royal Tenenbaums redux, set to the music from Free to Be, You and Me. Hellooo appealing to people who Target thinks have young kids now:

Has anyone else noticed any back-to-school ads this season? How are they portraying young people? If you have kids (or are a kid yourself), what do you think of these commercials? OH_Logo.jpg

This project was made possible in part by a grant from Oregon Humanities (OH), a statewide nonprofit organization and an independent affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities, which funds OH’s grant program. Any views, findings, and conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of Oregon Humanities or the National Endowment for the Humanities.

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7 Comments Have Been Posted


Staples' back-to-school ad is also targeted at parents, with a young Black man telling his little sister that the back to school list always makes their mom freak. He flashes back to 3 separate incidents where he reminds her of the list while she is cooking and she drops something on the floor with a dazed expression on her face. Now, he gleefully reminds her of the list and- without looking up- she pulls out an "easy" button. She says "That was easy." It is her son's turn to look shocked and drop something.

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I am a teenager...

Don't forget the Payless shoe commercial targeting high schoolers and their parents. Girls running around in six-inch heels and all tarted up with makeup and so many accessories they probably jangle when they walk... I am a female high school senior and let me tell you, that is NOT what we wear to school. Not only do you look ridiculous dressed like that, but the *clack clack clack*-ing of the heels all over campus makes you stand out like a hooker in church.

Target Ad

Maybe this has to do with the "Royal Tenenbaums" theme, which I've never seen, but I found the characters in the Target ad interesting. They're triplets, and the one in pink is girly, the one in yellow is athletic, and the one in blue is academic. No mixed traits there. You can only be one thing!

Ha ha that's right.

And the only way to express the freedom to be you and me is through what what one buys and/or what one chooses to wear.

As a young adult, I've

As a young adult, I've endured many of these commercials targeted toward me, supposedly. The ads feature trendy clothes that aren't for sale at the store. They show girls laughing and smiling and dancing around. The boys are playing instruments, also smiling. The commercials are nothing like actually school and always annoy me because "reality" is nothing like what's portrayed, what is portrayed is a hilarious mockery. The subliminal message is, of course, that everyone is happy and has a great life and fit in because they have these clothes that they bought at the store.

I do like the Target commercial. Looking at it from a critical point of view though, it can be argued that it's merely perpetuating stereotypes. The learned girl has to wear glasses, the "girly" girl has to wear pink and be doing her nails (in class).

Advertising isn't designed

Advertising isn't designed to be like reality. It's designed to make us frustrated with reality so we'll try to buy a new one.

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