CHICAGO OfficeMax branches into branded entertainment with Schooled, a reality-style TV show premiering Thursday on Disney-owned ABC Family.
The program, co-developed by Disney and OfficeMax agency DDB in Chicago, plays like a Punk'd for the middle-school set. Eighth graders in Eastchester, N.Y., are called back from summer break to take an unusual test in order to "advance into high school." The exam is bogus, and the kids are ultimately treated to a performance by teen idol Jesse McCartney. The retailer also donated $80,000 in office supplies to the school.
The hour-long special will be presented without commercials. Downloads of outtakes and additional McCartney clips will be available Friday on Google Video. The retailer will also give away free DVDs of the show with every purchase.
The program is designed as a new way for the company to reach target consumers—middle-school, high-school and college students—without being intrusive. "We wanted to connect with kids where they live, which is reality TV and online," said Bob Thacker, CMO of the Itasca, Ill.-based retail chain.
DDB account director Norm Bilow came up with the concept. "We were looking for a good marketing platform," he said. "Back-to-school is such a big part of kids' lives. But there's no programming, unlike holidays."
Bilow refined the idea with a team that included creative director Vinny Warren.
"The trick isn't so much creating [the idea] as it is selling it," Warren said. "It's a bit like someone walking in off the street saying, 'I've got a great idea for a commercial.' "
Disney also saw an opportunity to market a new album by one of its teen stars.
"Disney brought the opportunity to work with a major teen celebrity," Thacker said. "We said, 'Let's do something that really engages kids and has them relate to us.' "
OfficeMax next enlisted Tuckahoe Middle School principal Carl Albano, along with teachers and parents, whose cooperation was essential to ensure students believed the test scenario. DDB worked with production company Smuggler to set up hidden cameras around the school to capture the kids' reactions to questions such as, "If I'm driving at light speed, and I turn on the lights, what would I see?" Another portion of the exam asked the students to dance like chickens.
"It becomes logistics and a nightmare," Warren said. "A lot of it was just structuring it so it would yield good TV."
The team also engaged Murderball director Henry-Alex Rubin to give the production a gritty, realistic feel. (His expertise also provided a backup option: to edit the footage into a documentary in case the joke didn't work.)
"[That] would have really sucked," Warren said. "But we didn't have to do it."
Indeed, the production managed to capture genuine surprise and delight as the exam is interrupted by McCartney's performance.
"It would have been cruel if we had not paid it off with a concert that they loved," Warren said.
With the final cut now set to air, the team is making plans for next year.
"You can expect us to do unexpected things," Thacker said. "Will there be a Schooled 2? I don't think so, but you just never know."