A lot of virtual ink has been spilled decrying and/or celebrating Netflix’s latest hit “Stranger Things.”
The show, based on Stephen King’s novel, is an avalanche of nostalgia harking back to the 1980s and monsters under the bed (or in the wall).
With the same wearying inevitability that the monsters are vanquished and the good guys prevail, here are five PR lessons from “Stranger Things”:
1. Cleverly used clichés don’t deserve the name.
The shadowy government lab, kids saving the day and (eventually redeemed) jock boyfriend climbing through the window were all elements of the show that viewers loved.
It’s easy to call these things clichés—and handled clumsily, they probably would be. However, with a little love and craft—and through remixing and recasting these in different combinations—”Stranger Things” manages to create something that feels both new and familiar. That’s what makes it wildly popular.
We know that these aren’t lazy writing crutches, but carefully curated motifs woven together with skill. We appreciate them because they transcend the pejorative label of ‘cliché’.
A good PR campaign can do the same. A recent example is Always’ #LikeAGirl campaign:
It’s based on a hackneyed (and damaging) cliché: that “doing things like a girl” is to do them in an inferior way. Always then reversed the cliché, creating a powerful campaign that resonated widely. The video above has more than 62 million views at the time of publishing.
2. Misconceptions deserve to die.
These include, “Never work with child actors.” I challenge anyone to watch “Stranger Things” from start to finish and criticize the performance of Millie Bobby Brown, Caleb McLaughlin, Gaten Matarazzo and the remaining young actors.
We can look at past experiences (such as the first “Harry Potter” movie) to confirm our negative biases as a lazy alternative to thought.
There are a number of misconceptions and old ways of thinking that we can do without in PR (thanks, “Absolutely Fabulous,” for the “PR darling” shtick).
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, the truth is somewhere in between.
Steal a page from the casting directors for “Stranger Things”: Take things on a case-by-case basis and don’t get stuck in aphoristic thinking.
3. Know your audience—and hit them in the “feels.”
This is crucial when you’re designing a campaign that delivers a left hook to consumers’ nostalgia glands. “Stranger Things” works because of perfect timing in two ways:
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 with its release date.
1980s nostalgia wouldn’t work in the 1990s when the past fads were relatively recent. It probably won’t work in 2050, either (unless it takes the place of “Downton Abbey’s” historical niche).
“Stranger Things” gets it right because the creators knows that the people it is likely to appeal to are fall into the prime Netflix consumer demographic—anyone from their late 20s (weaned on ’90s re-runs) to those nearing 50.
“Stranger Things” is a masterpiece of audience profiling as much as storytelling.
Compare “Stranger Things” to another recent nostalgia-phenomenon, Pokémon Go. The game swept consumers around the world, but mainly got nostalgic juices flowing for those who grew up with the original games and cartoons (millennials). “Stranger Things,” by contrast, is popular with millennials—but also appeals to Generation X-ers and younger baby boomers.
If you’re a brand manager looking for popularity, which works better? Are you trying to sell products to tech-savvy millennials—or are you trying to hit executives in their 40s with a B2B campaign?
4. Take your audience where they’ve never been before.
The “small town America” setting of “Stranger Things” is instantly recognizable from sources as such as the first “Rambo” film, “The Breakfast Club” and “Family Guy.”
It shows that you don’t have to create everything from scratch. Sometimes a familiar backdrop can do much of the work for you. It can call to mind a set of ideas and feelings that you can draw upon to tell a story or put an audience in a certain mental state.
5. Don’t send consumers to the “upside down.”
The “upside down” is a dark, distorted reflection of our own world. In “Stranger Things,” it’s where Will is trapped, the monsters live and Barb dies.
Don’t let your campaign do that to
Barb your consumers.
The upside down is an example of the discomfort we feel when something is eerily familiar, but not quite right. It rarely makes for a good PR campaign.
Amazon’s marketing campaign for “The Man in the High Castle” showed this. 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, Amazon decided to paint New York subway seats in a design of the Stars and Stripes altered with Nazi imagery.
The familiar-but-wrong theme echoed the show’s content, but it wasn’t the most tasteful—or popular—of moves.