Content warning: The embedded video depicts scenes of school shootings and gun violence.
In the PSA, “Back to School Essentials,” young students breezily show off their new school supplies before the tone veers into something much darker: A boy marveling over his new sneakers is running down the hallway not to dodge a hall monitor but a gunman. The ad reflects a grim reality for the network of survivors from the more than 228,000 students who have experienced a school shooting since the massacre at Columbine High School in 1999.
“Back to School” debuted on NBC during the Wednesday morning broadcast of the “Today” show alongside an interview with Sandy Hook Promise co-founder Nicole Hockley. Hockley’s 6-year-old son, Dylan, was among the 20 children and six adults who were killed in the December 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.
“At the end, the girl with the phone gets me every time,” Hockley said on “Today,” referencing the ad’s final scene, where a young girl huddles in a bathroom stall to text her mom “I love you” as she hides from a gunman.
“We don’t want people to turn away from it, so pretending it doesn’t exist is not going to solve it,” Hockley said, explaining the group’s motivation for choosing an ad that even she admits is hard to watch.
The video is the latest installment of anti-violence PSAs the group releases each year. This year’s ad promotes “Know the Signs,” a campaign geared at teaching students and school staff how to recognize and intervene when someone shows warning signs of behavior that could lead to shootings or other forms of violence in schools.
The goal, as Hockley explained, is prevention; she wants people to understand how they can recognize troubling behavior and intervene to stop violence like school shootings before they happen. Other tactics have been more reactive: sales of bulletproof backpacks for kids have grown every year since 2016.
“I will never put a bulletproof backpack on my kid,” Hockley said on “Today.” “I think it sends totally the wrong message: He’s not a soldier going off to war; he’s a boy going off to math class.”
Reactions to the campaign on social media were overwhelmingly positive in the hours after the PSA’s debut:
On a technical level, this is an incredibly well-made PSA with riveting performances. On an emotional level, this is a devastating take on school shootings that ends so disturbingly, I had to text my 20 yr old kid to make sure she was okay. She is... And yet I’m still crying. https://t.co/cN86XiIyqH— KevinSmith (@ThatKevinSmith) September 18, 2019
The campaign is expanding beyond print and digital to include radio and outdoor advertising, according to Adweek. The ad is expected to receive a signal boost from $2 million in donated media placements from media organizations such as the AMC theater chain, Condé Nast and CNN, the New York Times reports. Democratic presidential candidates including Sen. Kamala D. Harris (Calif.), Andrew Yang, Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Ind., and Montana Gov. Steve Bullock have shared the PSA with their Twitter followers.
Previous spots from the campaign have won advertising awards, with the 2016 PSA “Evan” being viewed more than 11 million times on YouTube.