Marketers Air Fewer Back-to-School Ads

As Retailers Report Uneven Sales, Commercials Also Rank as Less Effective

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Back-to-school is a fiercely competitive time for retailers, but fewer are running TV and online video ads this season. And those ads that are being aired are not as effective as they once were.

According to AceMetrix, marketers, particularly retailers, aired 11% fewer ads this season -- 55 back-to-school ads aired this year versus 62 a year ago. And those back-to-school ads ranked as 5% less effective.

"Last year we saw pretty good volume even in an Olympic year, so I'm surprised to see this season fall short," said Gloria Consola, VP-corporate marketing at AceMetrix.

"Retailers may be playing it safe," she added, noting that the same trend is being observed across categories. "There aren't as many standout performances as we saw last year, so absolutely it's safer creative. …I hope it means advertisers are saving their most creative work for the holidays."

Retail ads accounted for 82% of total back-to-school ads this year, but non-retailers including Lysol, Sonic, Oreo, Verizon, Excedrin and Bing also aired ads with back-to-school themes. Lysol, in fact, had the most effective ads of the season, with its "Healthy Habits Week" campaign, according to AceMetrix.

Among retailers, Best Buy, Office Depot, Payless, H.H. Gregg and Famous Footwear ran the most effective TV and online video campaigns, while J.C. Penney, Kohl's and Target had individual ads that ranked in the top 10.

Ms. Consola said that technology brands are attracting more interest from consumers, and retailers like Office Depot and Best Buy, whose spot Blue Shirt Beta ranked as the third most effective ad of the season, are outperforming their peers by focusing on products like tablets.

Consumers reacted well to J.C. Penney's ad "Do Something," which focused on its philanthropic efforts, for example. But in total, its ads underperformed competitors. Incidentally, the struggling department store chain aired more ads than any other retailer.

Back-to-school sales have been mixed this year, with August sales coming in below expectations. In recent weeks, retailers including Kohl's, Target, Dick's Sporting Goods and Abercrombie & Fitch reported weak second-quarter results and expressed caution concerning the second half. At the start of the season, the National Retail Federation forecasted a 13% decline in spending.

"August sales were softer in the apparel segment compared to July, but were steady elsewhere," said Michael P. Niemira, VP-research and chief economist at the International Council of Shopping Centers. "The back-to-school apparel demand was uneven and late, and overall August back-to-school spending was stronger in the earlier part of the month compared to the end. As a result, September is likely to see steeper 'end-of-season' discounts ... to clear the remaining inventory."

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