What’s the best back to school movie out there? We attempt to settle the debate by looking at what these movies teach us about back to school marketing.

We have a lot of debates around the office. Sometimes it’s about who the best skeeballer is. Other times it’s the best hot dog in Chicago. We debate super heroes, karaoke songs, and the best house in Game of Thrones. (Not for nothing, but: me, Portillo’s, Green Arrow, Shake it Off, and House Martell.) So, when the inevitable debate of best back to school movie came up, almost everyone weighed in.

After a gridlock debate I thought the best solution would be to look at what lessons each movie taught us. As it turns out, those lessons weren’t limited to life – there’s a lot of marketing lessons to be had as well. And now, with back to school season quickly approaching, I’m sharing those insights with you. You can use them to enhance your back to school marketing strategies, get ready for the upcoming season, or help us settle the debate.

Below are 10 movies I believe make the cut. You can select your favorite, least favorite, or read the entire list. (I recommend the whole list, but I have a bias.) Got a vote? Share it with us on Twitter so we can lay this discussion to rest once and for all. Or until next back to school season anyway.

Select your favorite back to school movie, or read the whole list!

Mean Girls The Breakfast Club Billy Madison Harry Potter 21 Jump Street
High School Musical Old School X-Men Animal House Clueless

What it’s about: After 12 years of homeschooling, Cady (played by Emma Stone Lindsay Lohan) is thrust into a public high school where she learns that it’s a jungle of cliques. Cady befriends both the awkward drama students and the pretty, popular girls, the latter trying to be brought down by the former. Cady tries her best to navigate the battleground of social groups, realizing she may not fit in anywhere. With the help of Tina Fey and Tim Meadows, Cady is able to bring the school together in an assembly and help them realize that the divisions are only what they perceive, and the students have a lot of similarities with each other they wouldn’t have otherwise known or expected. Everyone becomes friends and “chill” with each other, learning an important lesson about social cliques.

What marketers can learn: One of the major themes in this back to school classic is that, at the end of the day, we’re a lot more similar than we realize. There’s a lot of crossover in interests and how we identify, despite preconceived divisions that may only be superficial. And boy oh boy is that ever true when marketers need to think about their audience.

The ability to reach so many different customers can be as powerful as it is daunting, but that doesn’t mean that each shopper is vastly different from the next. Different consumers have similar interests and shopping motives, even if it doesn’t seem that way at first. What about the luxury apparel shopper and the budget-friendly clothing consumer? They’re both going to need pens, pencils, notebooks, and the classic back to school supplies at some point. Or the MacBook crowd and the PC users? They’ll likely need similar applications regardless of what computer they buy.

Getting new customers is a challenge for marketers. New customer acquisition can be expensive and time-consuming. But this is only expensive if marketers aren’t being strategic in their new customer acquisition approach. Marketers should be working hard to identify the overlap between different demographics to find new potential customers that they can build a long-term relationship with – even if at first glance the customer may not seem to fit their model. Using custom-serving ads, leveraging partnerships, and using tools and/or products can help you achieve this goal. 

What it’s about: Five high school students get the worst punishment fathomable: detention on a Saturday. Though the five seemingly have nothing in common, detention causes them to realize that not only do they get along – they’ve all judged each other on perceived stereotypes and misconceptions. As they get to know each other’s true selves they band together to make the most of their time before going their separate ways. Finally making it through detention, they head all head back to their homes but not before leaving a note for the principal stating he had misjudged them based on nothing but assumptions. Side note: this movie gave younger viewers everywhere wildly inaccurate expectations of what detention would be like if they ever went. Turns out detention isn’t one big celebration of each other’s differences after all. It’s just a lot of grumpy kids doing homework.

What marketers can learn: Being able to identify the audience and potential customers you want your brand to reach makes you a talented marketer, but don’t assume you know everything about them or what they want without doing the work first. Customer needs are fluid and will change as the consumers change – good digital marketers will do their due diligence on this to ensure they’re giving customers what they want as things change.

For back to school marketing, there can be some assumptions made – after all, back to school shopping pretty much implies a necessity for school supplies. But, many other areas of back to school shopping, such as apparel, will be based on the latest trends and fashion interests – not to mention age demographics and location. Don’t make assumptions or try to categorize your audiences without double checking your information and getting more if needed first!

Also, don’t forget how loyal the Breakfast Club was to each other after they came together. That loyalty, the film implies, lasts long after they leave detention together. Your customers aren’t any different. Building loyalty with customers not only increases the ROI and lowers the CPA it took to get them, it can help expand your brand’s awareness if they share positive shopping experiences with their friends and networks too.

What’s it about: Saturday Night Live legend Adam Sandler used the apex of his career to (literally) go back to school. Billy Madison is a spoiled rich man-child whose father paid his teachers to give him decent grades, but now the chickens have come to roost and if Billy wants to inherit his father’s Fortune 500 hotel company, he must retake every grade, starting with elementary and ending with senior year of high school, in just two weeks.

What marketers can learn: The spirit of Billy’s challenge to redo the entirety of his education in a short span is an important lesson for marketers to keep in mind. Back to school shopping is the longest shopping period of the year, with many ups and downs for different products at different points. Not to mention, it’s also the second biggest shopping period of the year behind the holiday season. That’s too big of an opportunity for any marketer of any brand to take a risk on, so thorough preparation is key.

Whether this is your brand’s first back to school shopping season or you’re a seasoned veteran, reviewing everything from previous years can help you identify what products or categories have performed strongest, what deals and offers drove the most conversions, what placements or partnerships earned the most impressions and clicks, and so much more. The goal is to take everything you’ve learned from the years, compress that information, and then leverage it in your back to school strategies. Succeeding to do this will help you drive the results you’re targeting during this season – and possibly exceeding them too. Failing to do so, however, will have you looking like Chris Farley as the bus driver in this back to school classic:


What they’re about: Orphan Harry Potter (played by a hobbit lookalike) finds out he’s a wizard and is sent to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. When he’s not playing Quidditch (a much more interesting version of soccer), dating his best friend’s sister and not ruining the friendship (the most impressive magic trick in the entire series), or annoying his potions professor (who’s miraculously more angsty than his pubescent students), Harry and his two best friends are thwarting evil and dark magic through deus ex machina’s…I mean wizardry. In the end, they all come together to use everything they learned over seven years (including callbacks from five and six years earlier) to show how everything fits together. Then there’s a wand battle that makes you think “Wait, did they steal those wand colors from the lightsaber battle in Return of the Jedi?”

They totally did.

What marketers can learn: At first it seems like the Harry Potter movies are just a series of “the magic children who vanquished the Squidward warlock with the thing they learned earlier in the movie” but all eight films coming together actually shows a very meticulous and well-crafted intent from the filmmakers and writers. The final films revisit rules laid out four or five movies ago that make the callback feel like it was earned, and ties everything together with purpose.

Back to school marketing, given the longevity of the season, must have the same attention to detail and planning from June to October. Making compelling offers and having strong, well-placed advertisements will help but marketers must also consider how “late-in-the-season” or “initially-unresponsive” shoppers will feel if the deals stay the same. There must be evolution and offers that build on each other. You don’t need an eight-movie saga about the world of wizardry to see the importance of planning long term and as a marketer, you should plan for that. Remember, this time of year is a marathon, not a sprint.

What it’s about: Two undercover police offers are sent to uproot a drug operation going on in a local high school. The two agents are to blend in as high school students – taking classes, participating in events, and getting to know the other students – to complete their mission. There’s also a sequel where they do the same thing in college, and it’s basically the same movie (which they even acknowledge), so this will be the first and last time I mention it.

What marketers can learn: Authenticity is the lesson in this modern comedy. Both undercover agents – played by Channing Tatum and not-actually-Seth Rogen – can’t just look the part of high school students, they have to blend in perfectly.

Today’s consumer demands a level of authenticity from their marketing. They’re likely to tune out repetitive, generic messaging in favor of something that resonates with them. It’s the difference between this:

And this:


Knowing the time and place to be authentic, as well as what to do and what not to do, is crucial. Luckily, just like in 21 Jump Street, you don’t have to do this on your own. Your affiliate partnerships with influencers and content marketers can help build authenticity to your brand with their audience. That means as a marketer you need to create strong partnerships with the right influencers and publishers who can reach the customers you’re trying to reach. And, if you’re a publisher, your responsibility is to be yourself and find ways to be authentic during this back to school season.


What it’s about: Will Ferrell and friends have grown up and are now in their adult lives, but still crave the college experience. So they do what any reasonable adults would do and recruit a bunch of college students to start their own fraternity. That’s about it. It’s really not that deep of a movie, like Anchorman or Elf.

What marketers can learn: Don’t be afraid to forge your own path with your back to school marketing strategies. While there are things that will work and strategies you can follow, know that digital marketing is not a one size fits all for every brand or publisher. Be creative in your strategies and test new things. If nothing else, this will help you to better understand what your customers will and won’t respond to during the holiday shopping period. Add your own flair to your brand’s marketing efforts, and stand out from the crowd.

What they’re about: The franchise that has become the reason theaters are over-encumbered with superhero movies follows the stories and experiences of mutant humans who have a variety of powers, and their efforts to destroy or save humanity depending on whether they hang out with the bald guy in the chair or the guy who loves magnets. This movie series proved you can ruin a good thing twice by saving the series with X-Men: First Class and then promptly destroying it again with whatever came after. At least they made good Deadpool jokes though.

What marketers can learn: What makes the X-Men so interesting is that every mutant has their own individual power they must learn to harness and leverage. There are countless mutants and no shortage of what each one can do. Together, they charge on a common cause, with each one individually contributing with their own ability.

In other words: yes, we’re talking about personalization now.

Personalization is absolutely key in marketing, but consider this from a back to school perspective: every student wants to feel like an individual. The stress to both blend in and stand out can vary based on what their age is, but they want to both simultaneously follow the most popular trends while also making themselves unique in their own way. That’s a balancing act for marketers, but it can be done.

Knowing the trends of different demographics is a good start, but you must take it one step further. Highlighting both how your brand or products are a part of that trend, while working with publishers to show how they can be unique and feel like an individual, is a powerful 1-2 punch that balances these seemingly-dueling goals. This requires marketers to know their products, know the current trends, know how those two fit, and how their messaging (or their publisher’s messaging) can help communicate that. Doing so will help your brand stand out, reach new consumers, and drive sales to happy customers.

What it’s about: Arguably the best movie about school of all time, Animal House follows the Delta Tau Chi fraternity as they recruit new members (both of whom believe they should be in the prestigious and renowned Omega Theta Pi house). They cause hijinks to the headaches of professors and Dean Wormer, get on double-secret probation, and finally ruin a parade while asking for another chance to be let on campus after they’ve been kicked off. This movie inspired college students everywhere to hang a poster of John Belushi in a “college” sweatshirt, right in between the poster of Bob Marley and the one with all the Pink Floyd album covers painted on the backs of models. (I may or may not have had that poster, too).

What marketers can learn: One of my favorite scenes of this movie comes during the Delta’s trying to select new pledges, and one of the brothers stands up to make the case for a less-desirable pledge, Kent. Kent is let in and throughout the course of the film is shown to be a perfect fit for the Delta house.

I think this is a great marketing lesson because it shows you need to know exactly who your audience is and who fits – even if at first glance it doesn’t seem like they do. As marketers, you need to not only embrace your audience but make sure that you’re finding the entirety of who your audience and/or customer base is – even if at first glance they may not seem like your ideal consumer. This is where Rakuten Marketing products like prospecting comes in handy because it enables you to see similarities between your current consumer base and other potential customers. You can also leverage the consumer graph to better understand your audience and identify some traits or qualities you may not have targeted previously but could open an entirely new audience to market towards.

BONUS: Did you know that at the end of Animal House, when they’re showing where each character ended up after the movie, one of the characters became a tour guide for Universal Studios and that you should ask for her? Did you know that if you actually did ask for her at Universal Studios you were given an incentive of some kind (some say a free entry, others say a discounted ticket)? This was a real promotion that was run up until 1989, but was sort of a fun marketing Easter egg in Animal House and Blue’s Brothers. It was a memorable strategy that almost “gamified” the marketing experience in a way, and now has become a fun piece of trivia for movie buffs and marketing blokes alike. If you can find a fun twist to put on your marketing this back to school season (just like they did in Animal House), go for it!

What it’s about: I honestly don’t know. This seems like a good setup for an “I’m clueless about Clueless!” joke right about now, but I really don’t know. I didn’t see the movie. I read the Wikipedia plot summary three times. I’m still really confused. It seems like it’s about a popular girl who makes another girl popular, and is also superficial, but then realizes she likes helping people and decides to do that instead of being superficial? Let’s go with “helping people.” The movie is about learning how good it feels to help people, and that it’s better to help others than be selfish.

What marketers can learn: First, you should learn that Wikipedia plot summaries are no substitute for actually seeing the movie. If anything else it just sends you down a rabbit hole to find out what Alicia Silverstone has been up to since Scooby-Doo 2: Monsters Unleashed. Not a great use of your time.

But even a Wikipedia summary can give you some inspiration, and Clueless has a pretty great message for today’s marketer: it’s better to help others. Or, more accurate to the lesson: your customers (especially younger ones like Generation Z and Millennials) really care about helping people. They are cause-driven consumers who want to know that the money they spend can go towards something good, and are compelled to chose brands that can help them achieve that.

Marketers should share causes they stand for or show where spending can help support a certain charity in their messaging. There are some resources about cause-driven marketing that are available, and marketers looking to get the attention of younger, more cause-active consumers should start to look into a strategy that can be supported by this. Keep in mind this is also a great way to build brand awareness, loyalty, and advocacy – because who doesn’t want to help others in need? Certainly not the main character from Clueless! I think.