A chilling back-to-school ad from Sandy Hook Promise

In Canada, a lot of parents still look forward to back-to-school (for instance). But a new U.S. ad went instantly viral Wednesday for its harrowing depiction of going back to school in a country where school shootings have people on edge.

Created for Sandy Hook Promise by BBDO New York, “Back to School Essentials” begins like so many back-to-school commercials—with young children excitedly talking about their new backpacks and binders over a jaunty-sounding soundtrack.

But there are subtle signs in the background that something is amiss: a teacher hastily closing and locking a classroom door, followed by muffled screams and children running from an unseen threat.

As the full horror of the situation becomes apparent, children find unexpected uses for their back-to-school items—using a new jacket to tie shut the doors of the gym, using a skateboard to smash a window to escape, and using socks as a tourniquet.

The final visual is particularly haunting: A terrified young girl hiding in a toilet stall, whispering that her new phone lets her stay in touch with her mom. The spot ends with the door opening and the sound of footsteps before fading to black. “It’s back to school time. And you know what that means,” reads the accompanying super.

The objective of the spot isn’t to just to raise awareness, but to prevent school shootings. It directs viewers to the Sandy Hook Promise site and its programs designed to educate people about the warning signs that someone could be a threat to others or themselves. Sandy Hook Promise is the same group behind the powerful, award-winning spot “Evan” (below) which has been viewed more than 100 million times.

Sandy Hook Promise secured more than US$2 million in donated ad inventory for this year’s campaign. Based in Newtown, CT, the national non-profit was established in the wake of the 2012 mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, in which 26 people, including 20 children between the ages of six and seven, were killed.

There have been more than 22 school shootings in the U.S. this year, and Sandy Hook Promise co-founder and managing director Nicole Hockley—whose six-year-old son Dylan was killed in the 2012 school shooting—says it’s “sadly probable” there will be more.

Chris Powell