Season three of Stranger Things was, from a technical and cinematic standpoint, absolutely gorgeous–the cinematography, direction, costuming, set work and color grading were nothing short of stunning and impressive. The show is masterful at setting the tone for the period in which it takes place, sucking you into its world of story–the familiar laced with the uncanny, suspenseful, and mysterious. And yet, Stranger Things‘ aesthetic distinction is a point of interest and contention, specifically in how the show balances its uneasiness and horror with its often rose-tinted and nostalgic takes on specific elements of the 1980s; namely, American consumerism.
Whether or not Stranger Things should be considered a commentary seems to be a divisive issue– some people are regarding season three as a biting satire that dismantles ’80s consumer culture, and others say that its message is one that propagandizes and promotes capitalism as a system. And while Stranger Things contains some interesting motifs that deconstruct American consumerism and ’80s genre conventions, it also has a sanitized, more palatable replication of these elements in its visuals. Essentially, the show wants to have it both ways. It wants to pay homage to ’80s iconography, music, and pop culture (including unchecked and unchallenged nostalgia for brands and consumer culture as a mark of the decade) without necessarily painting a comforting picture of the ’80s.
In her video essay, Stranger Things, IT and the Upside Down of Nostalgia, Lindsay Ellis talks about media in reference to different types of nostalgia: restorative, reflective and deconstructive. Restorative nostalgia emphasizes returning to an era gone-by through rebuilding it, while reflective nostalgia focuses on the forlorn loss of that time and holding onto it by remembrance. Ellis adds that we should consider deconstructive nostalgia as a feeling of longing for the past while still being able criticize it. This definition of deconstructive nostalgia encapsulates the duality of Stranger Things as a show that takes political elements from horror and sci-fi movies of the decade that it seeks to represent, and yet, also reproduces the same romanticized view of ’80s culture as part of its appeal to its audience to return to a time in their lives where they felt safer or more secure.
And yet, the past that Stranger Things presents is not a replication of it, but rather, a revision. In his essay, Rose-Coloured Rear-View: Stranger Things and the Lure of a False Past, Myke Bartlett writes about Stranger Things as being filled with social anachronisms:
On one level, the past as depicted in Stranger Things is a very twenty-first century kind of place. There is, for instance, little of the casual sexism or racism prevalent in Western society before 1990s political correctness kicked in. By amending outdated values and attitudes, Stranger Things reinforces their replacements as being central to modern society.
[T]he show allows us to take comfort in noting social progress–that is, in acknowledging the show is ‘improving’ on the past–and, in a complicated fashion, recognize the present as being a better place even as we long for this new past.
Moreover, as Bartlett asserts, it is important to view Stranger Things, not as a symbol that represents the ’80s, but as one that reproduces it. We aren’t peering into a window of the past; we’re watching an interpretation of the past written in the modern day, and seeing it through modern eyes.
So, on the one hand, we can interpret the mind flayer’s hive mind zombies as a metaphor for deconstructing mindless consumer culture. We can read the shopping mall as the setting of the final conflict as a deliberate action on the behalf of the writers to symbolize small town American businesses sticking it to the man. We can even argue that any inclusion of class conflict in the story sheds a different light on the ’80s as a so-called time of economic prosperity. And I guess, some can read the advertisements as some kind of Wayne’s World wink-and-nod into the camera. However, there’s also a shopping montage. For every throwaway line about class, there is an absurd amount of product placement without a tinge of irony. For every shot of Joyce’s store with her prices slashed, there’s ten more of the mall with the glimmering store-front signs in the background. Sure, we can read the anti-communist Russian conspiracy subplot as one that jokes about Cold War and red scare hysteria, but we’re also getting a very pro-America, 4th of July fireworks extravaganza. We get a sardonic line about how capitalism is great coming from a ten year old who asks for free handouts, but before the hilarity of that dawns on us, we get 7/11 Slurpies, the GAP and New Coke. During the ending scene, there’s even a U-Haul looming in the background, as characters are saying tearful goodbyes and seeking closure for the loved ones they have lost.
Regardless of the show’s portrayal of consumerism, the fact is, it is speculated that it generated millions of dollars in advertising. According to Kira Barrett of Marketing Dive,
More than 100 products appeared in Netflix’s third season of the original show “Stranger Things,” resulting in over $15 million in advertising value in the first three days of release, according to estimates from Concave Brand Tracking. The findings factor in screen time, logo/name visibility, product discernibility, viewership and cost of traditional TV advertising. […] Coca-Cola taking nearly $1.5 million of ad value. The figure is conservative as it doesn’t factor in account sharing.
It’s no wonder why many online articles have dubbed this season, “Sponsored Things”. And while product placement is not new to the series, season three’s egregious amount of featured brands was an integral part of the Duffer Brothers’ world-building. Although Netflix is partnered with some of these brands, from what I can glean from online resources, not all of these advertisers pay Netflix directly for the use of their products. Their marketing of Eggo in the first season was an unofficial tie-in– that’s right, entirely free. From that, it is clear that regardless of whether or not the showrunners are brokering these deals with advertisers, they are marketing products from the ’80s in their vintage packaging to create a general ambiance.
It is easy to write off Stranger Things‘ tackling of corporatism as a historical re-telling of how people interacted with brands during that decade; and yet, Stranger Things is, by all accounts, a modern show with modern sensibilities. Just as the town of Hawkins is historically revised in terms of contextualizing its sexist or racist characters as being morally bankrupt during a time where these sensibilities were more mainstream, the show’s handling of brands to evoke feelings of nostalgia sheds light on how corporations are embedded in the fabric of current American society as well as that of the ’80s.
Right now, if you look at the Stranger Things‘ official Twitter feed, they’re retweeting people who are pouring one out for Alexei by drinking and taking pictures of cherry Slurpies. In a tweet responding to Netflix US, the Stranger Things Twitter called Winona Ryder their “Big Gulp Queen.” And while this is surpassing the text itself, I’d like to think of this as a secondary source that continually perpetuates this brand-friendly memo directly to the fans.
I tear into this idea of Stranger Things as this self-aware satire because in all honesty, I really like the show. I really enjoyed this season, in particular. And I don’t think its handling of the ’80s should be pigeon-holed into an entirely positive light, especially where its horror and sci-fi elements are concerned. What interests me is not scorning people who enjoy this kind of nostalgia. I’m not even saying that we shouldn’t partake in the occasional Slurpie or Whopper. What interests me, especially in the case of this show, is navigating its very new and evolving strain of brand identity. Ultimately, we should be questioning the allure of this kind of nostalgia, and how a show like Stranger Things tricks us into believing that is a representation rather than a modern reproduction of a culture, and how that allows advertisers to capitalize on our sense of security in these companies and their longevity.
The only thing I can offer here is a general awareness–an awareness of how media functions and its affect on us in the present day. And maybe, just maybe, that awareness can spark some conversation about these unanswerable questions of our own decade, and the ethical conundrum that is American consumer culture. There is no real conclusion as to how we should toggle this comfort in a nostalgic past juxtaposed with the cynical nature of corporations, vying for our time and resources by using that comfort to market their products to us. But hey, that’s capitalism for you.
Barlett, Myke. (2017). Rose-Coloured Rear-View: Stranger Things and the Lure of a False Past. https://www.thefreelibrary.com/Rose-coloured+rear-view%3A+stranger+ things+and+the+lure+of+a+false+past.-a0490693234
Barrett, Kira. Product views in ‘Stranger Things’ valued at $15M, Study Say. Marketing Dive. https://www.marketingdive.com/news/stranger-things-product-placement-valued-at-15m-study-says/558422/
Beer, Jeff. “Netflix’s ‘Stranger Things’ is Dangerously Close to Becoming ‘Sponsored Things'”. Fast Company. https://www.fastcompany.com/90370526/netflixs-stranger-things-is-dangerously-close-to-becoming-sponsored-things
Ellis, Lindsay. (2017). Stranger Things, IT, and the Upside Down of Nostalgia. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Radg-Kn0jLs