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Netflix’s ‘Stranger Things’ is dangerously close to becoming ‘Sponsored Things’

At first it was charming, but the many branded tie-ins to the Netflix hit are turning the show’s charm upside-down.

Netflix’s ‘Stranger Things’ is dangerously close to becoming ‘Sponsored Things’

The Chicago Cubs finished the 1985 season with a 77–84 record, good enough for fourth in the National League East. A thoroughly unremarkable 114th season for the historic franchise. So why, exactly, did the Cubs just launch a Stranger Things tie-in for its new season set in 1985, a Snapchat AR filter that turns Wrigley into some sort of Upside Downville? Chicago’s within a day’s drive of just about anywhere in Indiana, where Stranger Things is set, but that’s a stretch. What connection could there possibly be to Stranger Things?

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Other than naked commercial ambition, that is.

We’re mere days away from the Stranger Things season three debut, and it feels like we’ve already hit Peak Brand Tie-In for the show, culminating in this senseless Cubs business. It’s actually a pleasant surprise the team didn’t go full Nostalgia Things and reissue 1985 caps and shirts, since just about every other brand has been using the 1985-ness of it all as the foundation of the entire marketing exercise. Throwback Mongoose BMX bike? Check. Nike Hawkins High School sweats? Check. New Coke? Big time check.

Perhaps it was inevitable. A show that trades on its throwback bona fides as much as its thriller chops, that becomes as pop culturally popular as this is bound to be an advertising magnet.

But the branded over-farming of 1985 nostalgia risks diluting our enjoyment of the actual show in the process. It’s got to the point where if you see any logo in the show, your first thought will be, “Is this another brand tie-in?” before, “Oh, cool, I forgot all about Swatch and Vuarnets.” While it’s not a show tie-in, I wonder what the odds are that Eleven wears Chucks? Let’s think about it while we watch this ’80s-style Lego tie-in ad:

Even for the marketers themselves, overkill is a problem. When Coke made its New Coke tie-in announcement back in May, it was an earned media win. A solid gimmick, with an authentic connection to the show. Win-win. But two months later, when we get to Baskin Robbins’s Demogorgon Sundae, we’re deep in eye roll territory. Havaianas flip-flops? Stranger ThingsLevi’s sweatshirt? Yawn. Worse still than eye rolls or yawns is complete indifference.

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Since we’re all so enamored with the ’80s, let’s go back there for a minute. The Reese’s Pieces tie-in to Spielberg’s 1982 hit E.T. became a case study in product placement marketing magic. Does anyone remember the Pepsi E.T. tie-in? Not so much. For any blockbuster movie (or show in this case), only one or two marketing efforts really have a chance of breaking through the cultural clutter, and even those have to be pretty remarkable. The fifth and sixth brand partners are almost certainly destined to join Taco Bell’s Congo watch and BK’s Wild Wild West shades in the Movie Marketing Graveyard of the Forgotten & Useless.

Eggo had a special moment with Stranger Things season one, thanks to Eleven’s constant hankering for the frozen waffles. It was part of the story, it was unexpected, and it definitely gave these breakfast pucks a brand boost. Thing is, it wasn’t an official tie-in. By the time season two rolled around, though, the Kellogg’s marketing department had already been drooling at the possibilities and unleashed its own version of overkill—recipes, DIY box projects, a Chrome extension (!)—that came off less as a cool tie-in, and more like thirsty opportunism.

Like the goosebumps creeping up Will Byers’s neck in the final trailer, that’s how the brand hype leading up to season three is starting to feel. Speaking of that final trailer, there are at least five clear-cut branded moments featuring Coke (0:05), Burger King (1:14), JC Penney (1:27), Orange Julius (2:11), and The Gap (2:32). Now, while Coke and Burger King are official brand partners, the others are in there purely for 1980s mall authenticity in the story, but how am I supposed to know that?

See?! Once we get brand tie-in on the brain you need a nail-spiked baseball bat to get rid of it.

Tide isn’t a Netflix brand partner either, but now I’ll still be suspicious if Chief Hopper’s uniform is looking particularly crispy clean.

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About the author

Jeff Beer is a staff editor at Fast Company, covering advertising, marketing, and brand creativity. He lives in Toronto.

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