Advertising, the Social Element and the Perception of School

Earlier this month I read a Facebook post from a former student of mine from teaching days gone by.  She had encountered a young woman and soon-to-be freshman at her alma mater. She enthusiastically shared advice with the promising young student-scholar about making friends, hair salons, homecoming, and branching out of her comfort zone. I acknowledged her insights, but reminded her that she had forgotten one area: academics.  She responded that the academics were a “given.” Although one would hope that learning and studying are truly “givens,” I really wonder if that is actually the case.  As I look at images that are used to promote Back to School (BTS) shopping, which is one of the most profitable times of the year for retailers, I am not so sure that students fully appreciate their academic responsibilities and opportunities.

So in former professor mode, I did a quick Google analysis of several 2015 back to school commercials and images to confirm my suspicion.  I discovered that nearly all of the BTS advertisements utilized images of children and teens engaged in activities that would be considered “social,” ranging from choosing seats in the cafeteria to spontaneously breaking out into dance routines. Only two out of the dozens of still images observed were of students engaged in active learning experiences.

Could it be that images associated with back to school actually accurately reflect children’s perception of school  – the social element – or are the images shaping children’s perception of school?

According to April 2014 Gradnation Report, most Big Cities had graduation rates of 60% and some in the 50th percentile, while the national high school graduation rate is at an all-time high of 80%.[1] In addition, U.S. students demonstrated higher mathematical literacy than students in only 5 out of 34 Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries.[2] The disparities in these statistics combined with the patterns of promoting the social over the academic in BTS advertising raises a few questions in my mind:  Do students today primarily  see school as a conduit for social interaction or as a vehicle that is essential to their education? Is there a correlation between back to school images and the importance of learning in the minds of inner city youth? To what extent could industries that control those images use their persuasive power to simultaneously better promote back to school products and the importance of learning?

The fact is, whether kids think going back to school is all about sitting next to the right person on the bus, or acing their science test, they will be going back to school, and they’ll probably want new clothes and school supplies if it is in their parents’ budget. In addition to sparking an interest in selective products, we as advertisers enjoy an opportunity to inspire students to focus on and value learning. Whether BTS ads show students in skinny jeans, leather jackets, or tennis shoes depends entirely on what our clients are selling. The visuals and narratives surrounding this genre of marketing and educational messages are totally up to advertising and marketing professionals…do we choose to emphasize break dancing in the hallways, or breaking the curve on a test?

About the Authors

Aryn A. Frazier

Aryn Frazier

Aryn A. Frazier currently serves as the Social Media intern for the AAF’s Mosaic Center. She is a third-year student at the University of Virginia, focusing on Politics and African American and African Studies. She has passion for social justice and equity in criminal justice, education, and media.




Constance Cannon Frazier


Constance Cannon Frazier joined the American Advertising Federation (AAF) in January of 2004 as the senior vice president, AAF Mosaic Center and AAF education services. She was promoted to executive vice president after one year of service to the organization. In October of 2007, Frazier became the AAF’s executive vice president of corporate programs and marketing and as of August of 2010, Frazier is AAF’s chief operating officer. Read More…