School & District Management

What Happened When Campbell’s Soup Tried to ‘Save the Snow Day'

By Catherine Gewertz — December 12, 2020 6 min read
Conrad Dunmire, 7, left, and Camille, 9, of Florida, have a snowball fight Sunday, Oct. 25, in Beaver Creek, Colo. The family said they extended their trip an extra day to enjoy the snow.
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In one of the most frightening winters in recent memory, when coronavirus is killing thousands, and millions of children are barred from their classrooms, struggling for enough internet to learn, Campbell’s Soup made a decision. It would fight, in its cozy way, for kids’ right to take a day off.

But the iconic food company’s “Save the Snow Day” campaign, launched this month, isn’t finding a universally warm-and-fuzzy reception with its intended audiences: parents, and the K-12 leaders who make snow-day decisions.

“Staying home behind a bowl of soup with your kids, the parents in my most struggling schools would think that sounds m’m m’m good. But the reality is, most of our parents are essential workers. They can’t just take the day off,” said Sonya Thomas, the executive director of Nashville PROPEL, a group that teaches parents in low-income neighborhoods how to advocate for better schools.

“Nice try, but protecting snow days is not even close to the top of our priority list right now,” said Michael Casserly, the executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools, which represents 76 of the country’s largest urban school systems. He’d much rather see big corporations help districts get universal high-speed broadband so teachers can consistently reach their students.

Staking out its snow-day turf, in fact, puts Campbell’s at odds with many of the districts whose cafeterias stock its Goldfish, V-8, and tomato soup. In a recent national survey of principals and district leaders by the EdWeek Research Center, 39 percent said they’d already switched snow days to remote instruction days because of COVID-19. Another 32 percent said they were considering making that switch.

Even before the pandemic, more states had begun letting districts convert bad-weather days to distance-learning days so they can avoid extending the school year. But coronavirus has put superintendents under added pressure to maximize instructional time because many kids are falling behind or not signing on for class.

“Superintendents and parents are worried about learning loss. The last thing they need this year, of all years, is to cancel a day of school because of snow,” said Daniel Domenech, who leads AASA, The School Superintendents Association.

Snow Days: A Cherished Tradition? Or a Disappearing One?

Campbell’s begs to disagree. Its marketing team imagines a snow day not just as a cherished tradition, but an important soul-charger for students and parents slumped in front of computer screens.

On a new website built for the initiative in its red-and-white color scheme, the company urges parents to sign a pledge to protect “the most magical of winter birthrights: the snow day.” The site features a one-minute video of happy children frolicking in the snow, and eating chicken noodle soup, narrated by a child who laments that snow days are “under threat” from remote learning.

The message resonated for many parents. Only 24 hours after the campaign launched on Dec. 2, 3,000 people had made the snow-day pledge, which means Campbell’s will mail them “snow day activity kits” that include scarves, mittens and hats, snowman-building supplies, and special-edition cans of chicken noodle soup with labels showing a snowman wrapped in a red scarf, an image that echoes a Campbell’s ad from 1993. In less than a week, pledge-signings were pushing 10,000.

In one snow-day-crazed corner of New Jersey, you could practically hear the cheering. Leaders of the Mahwah school district became a national sensation in October when they declared they’d protect snow days as no-school days. And Campbell’s burnished their poster-child status by pointing to Mahwah’s declaration in emailed reach-outs to reporters. That took the Mahwah team by surprise, but they loved it.

“Snow days are a longstanding tradition. And it’s one way we can ensure that for one day, kids aren’t worried about COVID exposure and can just be kids again,” said Lisa Rizzo, the district’s director of special services, who bakes cookies with her 4th grader on every snow day.

Feelings like that were what led the Campbell Soup Company to the new campaign. As winter approached, its marketing team had wondered how it might reimagine the snowman image that’s long been a centerpiece of Campbell’s holiday advertising, said Linda Lee, its chief of marketing. Monitoring news and social media, the team noticed parents’ reactions when districts did away with snow days. The company saw an opportunity.

“We all have such warm memories of those snow days,” she said. “We wondered, what can we do to make sure kids, parents, and even adults with no kids enjoy that?”

Ad Age, a longtime media outlet covering advertising, called Campbell’s new campaign a “marketing stunt… but a creative one” because it “[puts] Campbell’s on the side of kids—not a bad place to be for the maker of winter-friendly meals like soup.”

In the Pandemic, Nostalgia Has Power

It’s the power of nostalgia that Campbell’s is banking on, said Clay Routledge, a behavioral scientist at North Dakota State University. Routledge has studied nostalgia and found that its tug is strongest when people are under stress. We use nostalgia to stabilize ourselves in hard times. (The company’s new soup ad transports viewers to pre-pandemic days, when children could build snowmen and then enjoy hot soup together without masks or social distancing.)

But “Save the Snow Day” risks alienating many parents who might feel that it’s sharply out of touch with their daily reality, said Nancy Harhut, the chief creative officer at HBT Marketing, which draws on behavioral science to help clients such as H&R Block and the Four Seasons Hotel chain design effective campaigns.

“You’ll have some parents who think snow days are sacred, and think so much has been taken from their kids now, and maybe it resonates with them,” she said. “But others might say, ‘are you kidding me? I need to do anything I can to make sure my kid gets more education right now, not less.’ It could be polarizing.”

Unexpected Days Off Create Hardship for Many Parents

Dennisha Rivers, in Louisville, Ky., is all for a real snow day with her three sons. She’s starting a nonprofit to support homeless people, but she’s working from home, and could make time between phone calls for some family bonding time.

“In this pandemic, we’ve had a chance to sit back and reflect on what’s important,” she said. “We’re always on the go. We’ve lost friends and loved ones. Taking time out as a family, that’s a value I’d like to instill in my household.”

LaSheryl Jackson doesn’t have that choice. She has to take her two children to a relative’s home at 6 a.m. most days so she can manage a Starbuck’s on a university campus in Nashville. “I can’t just take a day off because they’re not in school,” she said.

Keri Rodrigues loves the idea of cancelling school when snow piles up. She and other parents she knows in Somerville, Mass., have had to “call our own snow days” during the pandemic just to ease the emotional stress of juggling work and children’s studies. “We are tapped out,” she said.

But old-fashioned snow days shouldn’t be an option for just some parents, she said. Employers and government need to adopt family-friendly policies that give working parents flexibility, said Rodrigues, the founder and president of the National Parents Union, which advocates for working-class parents. She called on the K-12 sector to “challenge the idea that we need every instructional minute in every day” because of school calendars that put time parameters around learning.

For Robert Malay, snow days are about one thing and one thing only: providing his families with a small bit of certainty in a year defined by upheaval. He’s the superintendent of seven school districts in New Hampshire. In those schools, students will keep learning from home on snow days for one reason: so the school year can end on time.

“Folks have had to make a lot of sacrifices,” he said. “They don’t know when the end of the pandemic will be. But at least we can give them this. We can tell them when the end of the school year will be.”

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