Back-to-school sales, ads and flyers started appearing weeks ago. But many of this year's back-to-school messages are taking on a new form, as marketers target a new generation of parents.

The above TV commercial — featuring a dad overjoyed at the thought of his kids finally going back to school — started running 20 years ago. At first, Staples kept bringing it back because it got so much attention.

But 20 years later, they've kept bringing it back because the kids who were victimized by it then are now parents who thoroughly enjoy having the shoe on the other foot.

While back-to-school marketers still run TV commercials, newspaper ads and flyers, they're also starting to campaign a little bit differently.

That's one of the stars of StyleHaul, an online fashion community with 150 million YouTube subscribers. Last year, U.S. retailer PacSun hired StyleHaul to create back-to-school videos promoting its products. While PacSun's Bullhead jeans were mentioned by name, the store's name never appeared.

Similarly, Dell hired online pranksters SMOSH to go on a road trip to San Francisco and post the experience on YouTube. ​Aside from the quick name mention at the end, a Dell tablet was featured throughout.

So why are back-to-school marketers going this route instead of just using TV and flyers? Because millennials — the very first generation of digital natives — are now parents of school-age kids. So, marketers are reaching them where they live, which is increasingly on social media.

This commercial from earlier this year announced the winners of Gap Kids Class of 2014. The global contest on Pinterest, Twitter and Instagram got parents to submit their kids' first-day-of-school photos, and the winning photos appeared in store window displays.

Other back-to-school campaigns targeting millennial parents involve banner ads that use your search criteria to appear on virtually every subsequent site you visit, and reviews by peers who are compensated with cash or products.

Millennial parents consume different media and rely on different information sources than their parents, so marketers have gone back to school to create more effective campaigns to reach them.


Bruce Chambers is a syndicated advertising columnist for CBC Radio.