Written by Chris Bowman

A lot of virtual ink has already been spilled decrying and/or celebrating Netflix’s latest hit Stranger Things as an avalanche of nostalgia, harking back to the days of 80s Stephen King and monsters under the bed (or in the wall). For my part, I loved it. But that doesn’t matter. More importantly, with the same wearying inevitability that the monsters are vanquished and the good guys prevail, here it is: 5 comms lessons from Stranger Things.

1. Cleverly used clichés don’t deserve the name…

The shadowy government lab, the kids saving the day, the (eventually redeemed) jock boyfriend climbing through the window: it’s easy to call these things clichés, and handled clumsily they probably would be. But with a little love and craft, by remixing and recasting these in different combinations, ST manages to create something that feels both new and familiar – and is wildly popular for it. We intuit that these aren’t lazy writing crutches, but carefully curated motifs woven together with skill. And we appreciate it – they transcend the pejorative label of ‘cliché’.

A good comms campaign can do the same. A recent example from the ad world is Always’ #LikeAGirl campaign:

It took a hackneyed – and damaging – cliché: that ‘doing X like a girl’ is to do X in an inferior way. Then it reversed the cliché, rethinking it to create a powerful campaign that resonated widely–- just that one video has well in excess of 62 million views at the time of writing.

2. But some clichés deserve to die

Like ‘never work with child actors’. I defy anyone to watch ST start to finish and criticise the performance of Millie Bobby Brown, Caleb McLaughlin, Gaten Matarazzo and the rest of the gang. Sometimes we look at past experiences (cough *firstHarryPottermovie* cough) to confirm our negative biases as a lazy alternative to thought.

In comms? There are any number of clichés we could probably do without (thanks Ab Fab for the PR Darling shtick), but one that stands out is the humble press release. Simultaneously praised as the PR panacea and reviled as the ghost of the bad old days, perhaps the clichés aren’t helpful and the truth is somewhere in between. Like the casting directors for ST, take things on a case-by-case basis and don’t get stuck in aphoristic thinking.

3. Know your audience (and hit ‘em in the feels)

Yes, I know this is basically a cliché itself by now, but it’s a good one – and vital when you’re designing a campaign to deliver a left hook to the nostalgia gland. Stranger Things works because of perfect timing – by which I mean two things:

  1. It rides the wave of the TV revival spearheaded by the likes of Breaking Bad and Game of Thrones that has put TV right up there with movies in terms of cultural currency.
  2. It nails the age of its audience and its release date. 80s nostalgia wouldn’t work in the 90s when all this was relatively recent. Probably not in 2050 either (unless it takes the Downton Abbey historico-niche). It gets it right because it knows the people its 80s feel is likely to appeal to are the prime age Netflix consumers – anyone from their late 20s (weaned on 90s re-runs) to those nearing 50. This is a masterpiece of audience profiling as much as anything.

For the comms upshot, compare Stranger Things to the other recent nostalgia-phenomenon Pokémon Go (subject of this excellent blog by Dan George). The game swept the world but mainly got the nostalgia juices flowing for those who grew up with the original games and cartoons i.e. millennials. Stranger Things by contrast, is popular with millennials but will also appeal to Gen X-ers and even the younger Baby Boomers. If you’re a brand looking to emulate their popularity, which works better for you? Are you trying to sell products to tech-savvy millennials, or are you trying to hit the C-suite in their 40s with a B2B campaign?

4. Take them where they’ve never been before…

The Small Town America setting of ST is instantly recognisable from sources as disparate as the first Rambo film, The Breakfast Club and Family Guy – even to a Brit.

It goes to show that you don’t have to create everything from scratch every time. Sometimes a familiar backdrop can do a lot of work for you; calling to mind a ready-made set of ideas and feelings that you can draw on to tell a story or put an audience in a certain mental state.

5. And don’t send them to the Upside Down

The Upside Down in ST is a dark, distorted reflection of our own world – the same, but different. It’s where Will is trapped. It’s where the monsters live. It’s where Barb dies.

Don’t let your campaign do that to Barb.

The Upside Down is an example of the uncanny – the discomfort we see when something feels eerily familiar but just not quite right. It rarely makes for a good comms campaign.

As evidence, please direct your gaze to Amazon’s marketing campaign for its show The Man in the High Castle. With the show set in an alternative world where the Axis powers won the war and Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan share control of the United States, they decided to paint New York subway seats in a design of the Stars and Stripes altered with Nazi imagery.

I understand how this familiar-but-wrong theme echoes the show’s content, but it wasn’t exactly the most tasteful (or popular) of moves, to say the least.

So that’s it: 5 comms lessons from Stranger Things. I wonder what we’ll learn from season two…

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