The Art of Shock: Behind Sandy Hook Promise's 'Back-to-School Essentials' ad
Sandy Hook Promise this month debuted “Back-to-School Essentials,” the organization’s biggest effort to date from BBDO New York designed to reinforce its message that, if you know the warning signs, gun violence can be avoidable. The spot garnered widespread attention for its shocking approach: It starts out as a typical, saccharine back-to-school ad, but progressively devolves into a bone-chilling message about the reality children face today. In prepping for the new school year, perhaps pupils’ most important gear will be objects that keep them alive.
In the commercial, children show off their new school gear, like running shoes, writing implements and socks, which as the ad progresses turn out to have a horrifying dual purpose: They enable kids to flee from a shooter, defend themselves, or even stanch bleeding wounds.
The ad’s impact was powerful and immediate. According to agency figures, it earned more than 26 million views within 24 hours of its release and was shared by numerous celebrities and at least a dozen presidential candidates. The Sandy Hook Promise website also saw a 500% increase in visitors compared to the previous year.
The spot’s compelling concept and sharp writing, along with fastidious attention to craft, combine to create a message that can bring a viewer to tears, no matter how many times it’s viewed. Ad Age spoke with the people behind the ad to find out what went into making the powerful piece.
So far this year, the U.S. experienced at least 22 school shootings. Bianca Guimarães, BBDO VP and creative director, says the brief from the client was for a piece to launch during the back-to-school period and “remind people of the new normal, that kids are being taught how to survive shootings.”
As for choosing the back-to-school ad premise, “we looked at a lot of ideas and one of our teams stumbled on that great one around what do we see every year during back-to-school?” says Pete Alsante, BBDO senior VP and senior creative director. The client’s mission is for the general public to know the signs of a potential shooter.
The team arrived at the insight that knowledge of those signs is basically a “back-to-school essential. Out of that came the idea of playing off what those essentials are, in this day and age,” Alsante says.
The campaign reunited Smuggler director Henry-Alex Rubin (“Semper Fi,” “Murderball”) with Sandy Hook Promise and BBDO. Rubin previously was behind the camera for BBDO’s first spot for the client: “Evan,” the award-winning ad that showed a sweet love story gone awry due to a school shooting. He also directed “Tomorrow’s News,” a satirical newscast-style spot that spelled out the grim outcome of a future shooting. When Rubin came into “Back-to-School Essentials,” he says “it was already an incredibly tight, chiseled piece of writing. My challenge was to figure out where the tone shift was and to control the tone very carefully.
The spot gets darker as it unfolds, but not overtly so. Rubin paid careful attention to how it moves from the “formalism and cleanness of the first handful of shots,” he says. “Does the camera get shaky and the lighting get more somber or real? Does the color correct get more subtle as the piece progresses from a back-to-school ad?”
With the help of Director of Photography Autumn Durald Arkapaw and color by Company 3, Rubin tread lightly. “It does become a little bit more handheld, a little bit more raw and less saturated,” he says. “These are all very subtle things, along with the turn of music, that help the transition without calling attention to those artificial adjustments along the way. You don’t want to shift the gear too hard or have people feel the hand of the director. You want them to be sucked in, and then feel subtly betrayed by what they thought they were watching.”
Casting was crucial as well. “I needed to cast kids who made the situation and their lines real and immediate and believable, even though it was within a clearly delineated dark, satiric world,” Rubin says. “My job was to capture the performances, especially in the end, that could be real enough to move you.”
In the final scene, actress Symera Jackson, playing a student hiding in a bathroom stall, tries to maintain a smile as she describes her phone as a critical back-to-school item. “I finally got a new phone to stay in touch with my mom,” she weeps. Her tears, the foreboding “I love you” message she texts, and footsteps in the background betray her fate.
“The hardest things for actors to do credibly on film are things that are physically beyond our control—laughing, sneezing, shuddering, blushing and crying," Rubin says. "Despite it being a prerequisite for their job, a majority of actors cannot cry on command. Even with those who can, it often feels like ‘movie’ crying.”
To capture the moment, Rubin cleared everyone off the set and remained with Jackson in the stall. “We held her in an emotional holding pattern for about an hour until I felt I got the perfect heartbreaking 10 seconds.” The final take was the one used in the spot. “It wasn’t easy for her,” Rubin recalls. “She was shaking afterward. She was what you hope for as a director—a genuine, vulnerable human with access to real feelings who was also able to take notes. The film has to travel from an ironic, chipper tone all the way to a somber, genuine one. So getting the pitch of her performance was essential.”
The spot was cut by editor Jason Macdonald, founder of editorial shop NO6, who was also in the bay for “Evan,” another bait-and-switch that goes from cheery to dark.
BBDO’s Alsante says the cut on this project was a lot like that on “Evan” and involved testing boundaries. “We had to go a little too far in one direction or the other to find out what was right,” he says. “We brought the turn in the music earlier, then later. Visually, everything starts to change halfway through, but it becomes a decision of how much do we want to telegraph that or give the viewer time to figure it out. It was a collaborative process of doing it wrong 50 times to find the right way to do it.”
Among the school supplies in the spot that double as “essentials” during a shooting incident are pencils and scissors, running shoes and socks. Rubin noted that there was a “healthy creative debate” about the headphones showcased early on. “We talked about whether every object had to be unexpectedly used in self-defense,” he says. Ironically, the headphones didn’t serve as a life- saving device, but perhaps the complete opposite. “It created a sort of irony—the kid telling us about noise-canceling headphones was missing out on the danger. It leaned into the horror that would emerge 40 seconds later. We ended up embracing the fact that it was an outlier because it did something interesting script-wise.”
Macdonald says that the sound, ultimately, was the most crucial aspect of the edit because it helped to ground the story in reality. “My goal was to make you feel like you were there,” he says. “I watched every single shooting on YouTube I could find and tried to make it sound just like that. I watched cellphone footage from CNN, tried to mimic the screams, the pacing of the gunshots.” Restraint, Macdonald adds, was key. “You realize that in real life it’s never really that noisy, it’s just quick screams.” In his mind, the turning point of the spot is about 20 seconds in, during the scene that depicts a boy running through the hallways. As he darts down the hall, “you hear a sharp double scream,” he says. “Those were from Bianca, the creative director.”
The spot’s soundtrack was created out of JSM, with sound mix by Heard City. Composer Joel Simon, founder of JSM, says the music, like the other creative aspects of the spot, had to sneak up on you. “There was a very fine line on how we made that segue from a traditional back-to-school ad that was very ‘Saved by the Bell’-ish, to our dark reality while keeping it compelling,” he says. The aim was to “make you more and more uncomfortable. How could we illustrate that musically, and have it linger and pull the viewer in further?”
The music was a process of “devolution” from the cutesy track that opens the ad. The goal was “to take that opening music, twist it, morph it without it being a quick cut,” Simon says. Even in the latter scenes, you still hear elements of the opener, “but it’s not the way it was before,” he says. “We start with the opening piece and then, as it deconstructs itself, we bring in other elements that are somewhat dronish, a little dissonant.” A tremolo comes from underneath, and the tune becomes more bass-heavy. Throughout, you start to hear the single note of a piano, a “metronomic motif,” peek through, “on top of the stuff that’s churning underneath,” Simon adds.
By the time the spot reaches the final scene, all cheeriness has disappeared. The tremolo abruptly stops and the student is left alone with the sound of footsteps entering the bathroom. The piano then returns, accompanied only by the girl’s breathing, and the spot’s end line reads, “It’s back-to-school time, and you know what that means.”