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Stranger Things and Retro Storytelling

WE Communications Blog: Consumer

— Marisa Lalli, General Manager - SVP 

You can tell a lot about a person by checking out their Netflix queue. Mine is filled everything from House of Cards and Master of None to E.T. and Spies Like Us. I have quite a soft spot for the finer films of the 80s. So naturally I spent the better part of a recent rainy Sunday plowing through Netflix’s latest buzzed-about Original Series, Stranger Things, and, conveniently enough, I stumbled upon some storytelling tips along the way.

For those of you not following the hype (stop what you’re doing and get on this bandwagon immediately!), Stranger Things is a genre-blending mystery/thriller/sci-fi show from the Duffer Brothers that’s basically a love letter to 80s movies. Let’s run through the check list shall we?

  • Small town? Check.
  • Tight-knit group of loveable outsider friends? Check.
  • Surly and likely alcoholic town cop? Check and check.
  • Nefarious and elusive bad guy played by Matthew Modine? CHECK, CHECK, and CHECK.

Even after my 9-ish hour binge session (#noregrets), I couldn’t stop thinking about the show. I couldn’t stop reading about the show. And to the annoyance of my friends and coworkers, I couldn’t stop talking about the show. But what exactly was it that left me, and pretty much anyone that watched it, thirsty for more? After some ruminating, it dawned on me: two themes that explained why the plot of Stranger Things stuck with me, and that rang true for our efforts as storytellers across multiple mediums. 

  1. I’m Not Holding Out for a Hero: One of the best parts of Stranger Things isn’t charming Dustin and his cleidocranial dysplasia (though both are a true delight), it’s a second tier player named Barb. See, Barb is the heroine Nancy’s best friend. She’s an outsider, not a member of the token popular crew. Barb eventually gets ditched by the group and [SPOILER ALERT!]  goes on to play out a rather unfortunate though much-spoofed story arc. In a cast as stacked as Stranger Things – Give all of the awards to Winona. #WinonaForever – this seemingly secondary character tugged at our collective heartstrings. According to Vocactiv, Barb is the second most tweeted about character on the entire show, evoking love from across the internet, including this pretty spectacular rap tribute. I love Barb. I am Barb. WE ARE BARB. This character connected with us because she is the dose of reality. She is us in all of our awkward high school glory, always just out of reach of the popular kids, always trying to find our way. In our role as storytellers, it’s natural to want to cast our clients and brands as the hero – the savior of the day, the popular kid in the lunchroom. But the cultural pendulum has swung away from the glossy ideals and toward a more realistic depiction of life. We don’t want the ideal, we want the real. We want the Barb. Brands like Organic Valley and Campbell’s Soup picked up on this and their storytelling efforts are resonating. The public is no longer holding out for a hero ‘til the morning light. They’re holding out for someone to look them in the eyes and say, “yeah I get it, we’re not Gwyneth Paltrow either.”
  2. Nostalgia is Real but all Retro is Not Created Equal: It’s not a news flash that we all love a good trip down memory lane. After all, nostalgia is the core concept of VH1’s finest collection of original content thanks to the I Love The 70s, 80s, 90s and 00s series that kept C-list celebrities in work for the better part of a decade. What sets Stranger Things apart from other attempts to nod at the body of work of a particular moment in time, is that it doesn’t just nod to the 80s, it splits the universe down the middle, creates a separate dimension and bows in homage from the Upside Down. The best storytelling keeps the tropes we know and love – the group of nerdy friends, the bookish girl climbing the social ladder etc. – and then flips those tropes on their heads, making the content surprising, exciting and all the more compelling. That’s the way to invoke nostalgia. Don’t just feed me a list of toys I probably had as a kid (including, but not limited to, several dozen My Little Ponies and a She-Ra doll), give me a series of illustrations showing what my favorite 80s movie characters would be doing today. I don’t want to just remember the glory that was Teen Wolf, I want to spend hours giggling over Teen Wolf protesting fur at a Peta rally. The best and most compelling stories take what we know and love, present the proper amount of tension, and then deliver something totally surprising and delightful. Nostalgia is a powerful tool for our narratives and with that power comes great responsibility to do it justice. #TheMoreYouKnow

Like many of my colleagues at WE, I live for a compelling narrative. If you do too, and if you have even a mild affinity for what National Geographic dubbed The Decade That Made Us, I beg of you, please pirate a Netflix log in (JUST KIDDING, THAT’S A FELONY) and dedicate a day or two to Stranger Things. You’ll walk away feeling committed to shaking up all of the stories you’re currently working on, and you’ll finally understand why those random kids were handing out PB&J at this year’s Emmys.