By Emma Parrott
When the much-anticipated third season of Stranger Things arrived, fans flooded onto social media to discuss the show. But instead of the expected conversations around the plot or special effects, the most talked-about feature were the brands lurking in the background. Brand-name logos featured heavily throughout the season, with researchers identifying over 100 visible brands across all eight episodes, worth an estimated $15 million in advertising.
Prior to season three’s release, several big-name brands partnered for promotions with Netflix, including Coca-Cola and Burger King. These partnerships banked heavily on 80s nostalgia, bringing back classic Schwinn bicycles and even the original Microsoft Windows.
Netflix has since stated that no brands paid to be placed in Stranger Things. But whether the placements were free or paid the result was the same, instead of focusing on the messaging and themes of the show, audiences were distracted and annoyed by promotions which pulled them out of the story.
Stranger Things is set in the 80s, a time when advertising and product placements were ubiquitous, plastered across buses and billboards in mile-high graphic fonts and neon colour palettes. Brands were coming into their own, with brightly coloured TV and movies in appearing in nearly every home, it meant advertisers were clamouring for customer attention spans.
Brand inclusions are by no means new to the Stranger Things franchise, with Eggo Waffles popping up throughout the season. It’s entirely possible that Netflix was only attempting to create that authentic 80s feel, with its splashy brand placements, and Coca-Cola driven plot. New Coke, in particular, was just one of many massive pop culture moments in the mid-80s, and according to one of the show’s creators, it was destined from the beginning to be a theme in season three.
Viewers in the 80s likely would have found nothing amiss in the array of product inclusions. Fans of Back to the Future might remember Pepsi’s big feature in the franchise’s sequel, or Reese’s Pieces from the classic film ET.
Although viewers in the 80s may not have batted an eye, consumers now are much more sensitive to brand promotions. Heavy product placements which were the norm in the past seem even more outrageous to audiences now, compounding the annoyance of viewers.
While the style of the game has changed, brands are still vying for consumers’ attention as people flock to streaming services and away from traditional TV and cable usage. To advertisers, Netflix is an appealing venue as they try to figure out new approaches to reach customers.
But younger generations are steering clear of pushy brands and aggressive advertising, and the reason is shockingly simple: they feel like they’re being sold to. People don’t like what doesn’t feel genuine and being overly promotional can keep people from taking in the message that you want them to. While it may be tempting to try to spoon-feed your audience or go for the shock factor, doing so only causes people to disengage more.
Smart brands have already noticed the shift and have moved away from in-your-face ads and product placements, to minimalist designs that let products speak for themselves. Recent ads from popular young companies like mattress retailer Casper and shaving product vendor Billie, all feature bright colours with simple, minimal text. In a recent TV ad, Billie even pokes fun at typical shaving ads pointing out that they never even show body hair and that models are shaving already hairless legs.
Casper’s recent NYC subway ads don’t include any information about their product at all, simply a series of riddles and a web address to the answers if anyone gets stumped. In the case of Casper, they take a different route altogether, consumers drawing them into a puzzle to then eventually lead them to product information.
With the rise of minimalist advertising and highly individualized ad-targeting, advertisers are moving to peak consumer interest by enticing them to engage. By giving their audiences some breathing room, it takes the pressure off consumers letting them enjoy the ad without feeling like they’re being sold to.
It seems the director’s intentions were to create that authentic 80s feel by modelling it exactly after the original time period. What the directors failed to realize was that their audience wasn’t looking for a replica, but rather the ambience of the 80s. The show could have featured fewer brands, only presenting the most popular names of the day.
The show should read 80s but for a 2010s audience, which requires more subtlety, particularly for viewers who weren’t around in the 80s. By misjudging their audience, Stranger Things inadvertently made themselves as dated as the vintage branding they featured.