As Seen On TV

March 01, 2002 4 min read
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Ads starring teachers promote products—and sterotypes.

While sunlight streams through classroom windows, a blissful-looking blond teacher gives one of her young disabled students a hug of encouragement. Cut to the woman at home, and she looks equally delighted to be washing her face with Dove soap. And this educator isn’t alone: School-based characters have been popping up in many ads in recent months, hawking products from detergent to life insurance. Although the Dove spot portrays teachers in a positive light, many ads are less than flattering. If you buy the Madison Avenue view, teacher types are either wired workhorses gulping fast-acting medications or bumbling buffoons easily duped by kids.

What’s behind this often negative approach? According to James Twitchell, an advertising professor at the University of Florida and author of Twenty Ads That Shook the World, marketers court young people because they’re consumers who haven’t yet committed to particular brands. And spots that send up teachers play into youthful irreverence. “The ordinary adolescent sees 2,500 ads a day,” he notes. “To get through the clutter, you’re going to have to be edgy, extreme, dangerous.” Following is a selection of ads from the past year that put a spin on school life.


Tag Line: “The smell stays clean.”

Advertisement: An exhausted young male teacher struggles to maintain order in his classroom. But that’s not his biggest problem: He hasn’t done laundry in more than two weeks. The camera closes in on a shot of a towel going sour in a hamper at his home.

Campaign: The commercial, produced by the Leo Burnett agency, aired on major networks last fall.

Message: Buy Gain because if it can de-soil and de-stench the laundry of a sweaty male schoolteacher, surely it will purify the wash of the general public.

Image-o-meter: Negative—the teacher is overwhelmed by chaos, doesn’t seem to like his students, and is probably wearing stinky clothes. Somewhat accurate—grading papers and late-night phone conversations with parents often take precedence over laundry for educators.


Tag Line: “Extreme excitement.”

Advertisement: A teacher is mocked in class by his students for being unexciting but later wins their respect by speeding down a racecourse in a Grand Am.

Campaign: Airing last spring on the ESPN and TNN cable channels, the commercial was part of a 24-week television and print ad campaign produced by the D’Arcy Masius Benton & Bowles agency.

Message: Even someone employed in a profession as ho-hum as teaching can go wild with the Grand Am, a car marketed to 30- to 45-year-old men. In particular, the spot promoted Pontiac’s sponsorship of the National Hot Rod Association, urging viewers to check out races where they can see Grand Ams perform—and perhaps be convinced to spring for one.

Image-o-meter: Somewhat positive—the teacher proves that he’s multidimensional. However, the spot would have been even more profession-affirming had the main character not been played by Warren Johnson, a real-life race car driver nicknamed The Professor. The implication is that Johnson, rather than your typical teacher, would be so daring. Inaccurate—what teacher can afford to indulge in car racing, a hobby that costs amateurs tens of thousands of dollars a year?


Tag Line: “Working to protect human rights worldwide.”

Advertisement: In a print ad, a 40-something teacher wearing a ruffled gold shirt and black pants poses with a stack of dictionaries in front of a blackboard. The copy proclaims, “Ms. Allen’s 8th grade class is wiping out torture worldwide,” explaining in smaller type that, last year, her students wrote 665 letters urging world leaders to stop torture in prisons. “You can help too,” it concludes.

Campaign: The ad is part of an ongoing print and television campaign launched last fall that features portraits of real Amnesty members from a variety of professions, including education, business, and activism.

Message: The nonprofit organization, which coordinates protests on issues such as wrongful imprisonment, female genital mutilation, and the death penalty, is seeking to attract more members by making itself “less forbidding as a brand,” says advertising director Helen Garrett. The teacher, she claims, personifies qualities associated with Amnesty International: “dynamic, caring, wholesome.”

Image-o-meter: Positive—the woman looks poised to battle injustice. Mostly accurate—Kim Allen, a real teacher, was photographed in her classroom at St. Luke’s School in New York City. But the ruffled shirt? It’s not hers. The ad crew asked Allen to put it on, claiming it was more teacher-like than the tasteful top she wore to the shoot.


Tag Line: “For a restful night’s sleep.”

Advertisement: A cafeteria worker presents the day’s meal, and students give her a standing ovation, holding up signs with encouraging messages such as “Salisbury Steak rocks!” The scene then switches to a view of the school employee sleeping. Turns out, the happy lunchroom is only a dream.

Campaign: Produced by the Saatchi & Saatchi agency, the commercial first aired in December 2001.

Message: Simply Sleep is such a powerful sleep aid that it can deliver sweet dreams even to lunchroom staffers.

Image-o-meter: Negative—this commercial finds its humor in the belief that working in a school cafeteria is unpleasant. Accurate—students often sneak into educators’ dreams.

—Samantha Stainburn


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