WARNING: The following article contains spoilers for Stranger Things Season 3, streaming now on Netflix.
As Stranger Things is set in the 1980s, it's no shocker to see movie posters, pop-culture references and era-specific popular food and drink brands popping up on the Netflix hit. In fact, the show is so popular that Nike has released a clothing and shoes line, Chicago Cubs launched a promotional tie-in, and BMX even debuted a special line of Mongoose bicycles.
However, as much as it's fun to see brands align with one of our favorite shows (which undoubtedly will be profitable for Netflix and showrunners, the Duffer brothers), at some point it can get distracting if there's a whole lot of forced product placement in the show itself. Sadly, Season 3 runs afoul of this and, even worse, at key intervals. The whole thing just starts to feel like "Sponsored Things."
Stranger Things isn't the first popular geek property to do this and won't be the last. Pepsi had its E.T. tie-in, and we've seen the Audi and Acura vehicles in so many Marvel Studios movies; not to mention product placement has been jarring in the Transformers movies as well. But with Stranger Things, as it's so much of a period piece within Hawkins, Indiana, as a fictional podunk town in the '80s, it's easier for you to forgive and appreciate being transported back decades ago. Eggo, for example, as Eleven's favorite food was one of these placements that seemed endearing, and the brand only partnered with the show after Season 1.
Season 3, on the other hand, overdoes it, especially with Coke. With the series now existing in 1985, New Coke is on the market. For those that don't remember, this was a new formula of Coke the company brought out, designed to be the future drink of the brand, but folks didn't take to it well. The company ended up bringing the classic version back and years later, New Coke was discontinued.
However, it's seen life once more with a Stranger Things partnership, being sold in limited edition pop-up shops and whatnot, with this season offering the product a lot of screen time. When Mike's mom, Karen, is seen sipping it at the pool, it does feel organic as she needs some soda under the hot sun. But when Hopper visits a 7-Eleven (another prominent store in the franchise), Alexei -- his Russian prisoner -- makes it his duty to drink his New Coke, with the can aimed towards the camera.
You might be skeptical but still, you're willing to let it slide. However, the product placement becomes unbearable when in the heat of battle in the finale, as everyone's preparing to face the Meat Monster, Lucas stops the show dead in its tracks and goes into a speech on New Coke and its refreshing crispy taste. He tries to work in an analogy for The Thing and which version fans love better, but it doesn't fly.
He cracks open a can of New Coke while the gang sits in a circle contemplating the end of the world and Mike disdainfully asks, "How do even drink that?" It's a meta moment, playing into the poor reception of the soda, to which Lucas responds with this comparison: "It's like Carpenter's The Thing. The original is the classic, no question about it. But the remake is... sweeter, bolder, better."
Come on, have some tact! All fans hear and see is Stranger Things becoming a sponsored segment for Coke. It's not as subtle as Eleven trying to crush the Coke can in Season 1 and because of this, when she digs through the trash to find another Coke can to test her flailing powers a bit later, it's a bit of an SMH-moment. The same goes for when the kids use vending machines to get chocolate bars to fuel up, and you see a variety of bars on display. There's not much credibility left to offer because you can't help but realize this all feels so cosmetic and forced.
Again, subtlety is the key to product placement so that these things feel natural. Even when Hopper provides Alexei a Burger King meal and they go into an argument about slushies early on, it's a bit jarring because they're neck deep in figuring out how to break into the Russian lab in Starcourt Mall. It's another typical moment where key beats in the show are interrupted to highlight how great a brand is.
We don't mind whatever products are on billboards, whatever vehicles the residents are driving, whatever brand of cigarettes they're smoking, or the variety of stores placed in the mall, but just don't let them break into and become part of the narrative intrusively.
We know parallel product integration probably paid major bills in production, but let's not make these moments an ad for consumers, after all, that's why we subscribe to ad-free streaming services! Stranger Things is about cultural impressions and memories, not marketing and clutter, but honestly, we should have known what was coming when the final trailer for the season was released. It was sharp editing, but there was Coke, Burger King, JC Penney, Orange Julius and The Gap, all teasing brands would factor in big time.
Hopefully, next time these brands mimic Baskin Robbins' Demogorgon Sundae, Havaianas flip-flops, LEGO's Upside Down sets, and Stranger Things' Levi's sweatshirt and take a backseat to the near-apocalypse that inevitably happens each time the Upside Down decides to stamp its own brand on Hawkins.
Created by the Duffer Brothers, Stranger Things stars Winona Ryder, David Harbour, Finn Wolfhard, Millie Bobby Brown, Gaten Matarazzo, Caleb McLaughlin, Noah Schnapp, Natalia Dyer, Charlie Heaton, Joe Keery, Priah Ferguson, Cary Elwes, Jake Busey and Maya Thurman-Hawke.