Why Stranger Things is perfect for product promo

If, for whatever reason, you wanted everything you wore, touched, and ate to bear some relation to Stranger Things, this would not be impossible for you.

In advance of the show’s third season, Levi’s announced a capsule collection designed in collaboration with the series’ costume designers, with a lookbook shot on set. H&M partnered with Netflix to create a line of t-shirts, shorts, and swimwear inspired by the fictional Hawkins Community Pool (some of which will be worn by characters on-screen in season three). Nike made Hawkins High School limited editions of three of its most popular sneakers.

You can also buy: Stranger Things Trivial Pursuit, Stranger Things Eggo waffles, a Stranger Things Mongoose Max bike, two different Stranger Things Schwinn bikes, Stranger Things skateboard decks, Stranger Things bleeding-nose candles, Stranger Things cop coffee cups, Stranger Things doormats, Stranger Things sneakers which are also Ghostbusters sneakers (because the kids on Stranger Things watched Ghostbusters and wore sneakers), and Stranger Things drink coasters shaped like Eggo waffles.

Burger King — whose ad team seems to be operating under direction to debut a weird and unnerving brand campaign every month of 2019 — is offering an Upside Down Whopper Meal at only 11 locations. The Upside Down Whopper Meal is literally just a regular Whopper but upside down, served with fries and a co-branded Coke. (It should probably not be understated how helpful it has been to brands that the most obvious way to reference this TV show is just to turn things upside down.)

Ever since the show premiered in July 2016, it’s been inextricably tied in with merch. But this year, the co-branding opportunities are even bigger, stranger — and more seamless. The third season of Netflix’s Stranger Things, created by brothers Matt and Ross Duffer, will premiere on the 4th of July, as will a long-form Coca-Cola campaign, at the exact same time and in the same place.

This year in Hawkins, it’s 1985, which happens to be the year of the doomed “New Coke,” a reformulation of classic Coca-Cola that was so reviled by customers that it lasted only 79 days in stores. Coca-Cola is working with Netflix to help make this a core plot point of the new season and will, in tandem, sell 500,000 limited-edition cans of New Coke, as well as a New Coke Throwback Collection of limited-edition apparel.

“Coca-Cola’s partnership with Netflix as part of Stranger Things 3 gives us the chance to be part of one of summer’s most anticipated pop culture moments,” the promotional website reads. “And do something truly daring — and unexpected — to transport people back to 1985.”

This type of nostalgia marketing wasn’t always central to Stranger Things, but the potential for it was always obvious.

When the show premiered, the New Yorker’s Emily Nussbaum called it “a cool summer treat,” complimenting it for being “spooky but not scary, escapist but not empty.” She also parsed the most common criticism of the show — that it was just a cheap pile-up of ’80s pop-culture references, leaning on the viewer’s nostalgia for vintage Stephen King and Spielberg — saying, “Stranger Things might feel like a mere retro roller coaster were it not for that slow drip of sorrow and trauma, the residue of Reagan-era anxiety about the nuclear family.”

The Reagan era is also notorious for steep tax cuts for corporations, the MTV-ification of full-tilt American consumerism, and a sharp spike in credit card spending that continued throughout the ’90s. (All this stuff twists at the center of Richard Kelly’s poorly timed 2001 cult classic Donnie Darko, which takes place in 1988 — a year that may eventually be known only as Stranger Things 6.)

A Netflix spokesperson tells Vox, “None of the brands and products that appear in Stranger Things 3 were paid for or placed by third parties. They’re all part of the Duffer Brothers’ storytelling, which references 1980s consumer and popular culture”

Still, Netflix does not make a profit, and its investors are reportedly getting frustrated with the way the company spends money. It’s added enough subscribers to grow its revenue by nearly $13 billion since 2011 but has spent way more, including an estimated $15 billion on original content this year alone. Though Netflix has long positioned itself as a disruptor of the Hollywood business model — and in many ways it is — it’s now faced with the proposition of competing with companies like Disney and Warner Bros., both of which know the brand licensing and diversified revenue game arguably better than they know just about anything else.

Brand mash-ups aren’t new, obviously, and we’re used to the type of brand-speak that typically surrounds them. Earlier this year, HBO’s VP of licensing and retail Jeff Peters explained Game of Thrones Oreos to Vox, saying, “The Oreos came about out of a series of discussions about what different brands would do to show their love for Game of Thrones. Oreo used the Game of Thrones font on the packaging, not the regular Oreo logo, so it’s the first time they’ve ever done something like that. They specifically sacrificed their logo for their love of the throne.”

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But it’s still difficult to think of examples of weaving a product directly into a show’s storyline in such a substantial way. Gossip Girl was considered a long-form ad for New York City luxury tourism (in the grand tradition of Sex and the City), but the most brazen it got about any one product was stacking a tower of Vitamin Water (which Coca-Cola had just paid $4.2 billion to acquire) in the center of a Hamptons summer party. Several years later, Pepsi paid Fox to have one of the leads on Empire shoot a Pepsi commercial inside of the show, which later also aired outside of the show, which is probably the closest precedent to this campaign.

Hollywood isn’t new territory for Coke, either. Coca-Cola has had an office dedicated to “authenticity” in film and TV references since the 1960s. E.T. drank Coke, as did Superman, Molly Ringwald, the Gilmore girls, even Jean Seberg in Breathless, but the company is evasive about how often these fictional consumer choices were coordinated.

“Coca-Cola’s inclusion in movies has happened organically because filmmakers believed Coca-Cola truly belonged in the frame,” reads a company blog post from 2014. “When Jimmy Stewart runs down the street in It’s a Wonderful Life, what else would we possibly see in the background but a Coke sign?”

It’s an interesting example, given the thrust of It’s a Wonderful Life’s narrative, which is that Americans would do better to focus on community and family over consumption and profit, a sentiment likely meant to be underscored by the Coke sign, not refuted by it. In Taxi Driver, Robert De Niro’s descent into psychosis — precipitated by the government’s near-total disregard for returning Vietnam veterans — is also fueled by Coca-Cola.

But these days, brands are much more sensitive to context and interested in “authentic” warm feelings, so it stands to reason that Coke would take this opportunity to re-situate its product in the America of the 1980s — when our feelings toward soda and junk food and big companies were less complicated — and in the packaging of a beloved TV show — where viewers will find it more difficult to actively tune out or skip through the ad.

Burger King’s Stranger Things Upside Down Whopper is literally an upside down Whopper.
Burger King

Netflix also approached Baskin-Robbins directly about a promotion tied to season three of its biggest show. The company recently unveiled a Stranger Things-themed summer menu, and a Baskin-Robbins spokesperson tells Vox, “Netflix originally approached us about a partnership and we immediately recognized a number of fantastic synergies between Baskin-Robbins and Stranger Things, including the fact that Steve Harrington was going to have a summer job at an ice cream shop.” (Baskin-Robbins is also making t-shirts and “collectible” ice cream quarts inspired by Steve Harrington’s fictional employer, Scoops Ahoy.)

Baskin-Robbins has also done product integrations with Seinfeld, The Steve Allen Show, Captain America, and The Amazing Spiderman, but calls this “the largest and most integrated partnership” the company has ever done, adding “There is a very natural synergy between Baskin-Robbins and Stranger Things as it almost feels like the Duffer Brothers patterned season three’s Scoops Ahoy shop after Baskin-Robbins locations from the era.”

Coca-Cola brand director Oana Vlad tells me that, like Baskin Robbins, this is Coke’s most integrated brand campaign ever, “the first of its kind.” Netflix approached Coca-Cola two years ago, but the company held off at first. Then, as 1980s Coke commercials appeared on the show and a crushed Coke can was acknowledged as a milestone moment, it became clear that “the Duffer Brothers just love Coca-Cola.” Season three represented an “authentic and meaningful” opportunity because “the biggest cultural event that happened in 1985 was the introduction of New Coke.” Maybe. Maybe not.

Stranger Things doesn’t have an agenda,” Aaron Bady wrote for the Los Angeles Review of Books in 2016. “It’s just telling a fun story, using whatever texts come to hand.” Critics had much less patience for the second season — Vox’s Emily VanDerWerff wrote, “It still feels like a show that’s set in ‘the ’80s!’ instead of the 1980s” — and with season three it seems off base to argue that the show has no agenda. The agenda is to figure out a way to make money for Netflix by first making money for everyone else.

Correction: A previous version of this article mischaracterized the nature of the Netflix and Coca-Cola partnership. This story was also updated to include a statement from Netflix.

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