What Advertising Can Learn From Stranger Things and Shaun of the Dead
One phrase can bring almost any idea—good or bad—to a swift and merciless death. In the process of reviewing creative concepts it has been uttered by planners, creatives, account execs and clients alike. It comes in many forms but when it falls out of our mouths it usually ends up sounding something like, "I feel like I've seen this before." Whether intentional or not, that phrase (and its close relatives) is a coup de gras from which no idea seems to recover. Once said, the damage is done. No matter where that idea or concept could have gone, or whether or not it actually was something unseen, it's hard to shake the feeling of being the derivative choice on the board.
In an industry that prides itself on originality, it seems like a reasonable critique at face value. And I'll admit that from time to time I unknowingly used it as an instant idea crusher. But this is one thing I've shifted my perspective on over the years. "It feels like it's been done before" (or however it disguises itself) is not a good critique. Nor is it very productive. Why? Well, for starters, because it has. It has been done before. For thousands of years, some of the greatest philosophers and creatives on earth have agreed on one thing: It is nearly impossible to make something that doesn't take from something else.
We've heard the quotes from Jim Jarmusch ("Nothing is original"), Albert Einstein ("The secret to creativity is knowing how to hide your sources"), Andre Gide ("Everything has been said before, but since nobody listens we have to keep going back and beginning all over again") and even from the Old Testament ("There is nothing new under the sun", Ecclesiastes 1:9). And while we have platitudes pinned on walls and books stacked on shelves—holy or otherwise—reminding us in various ways to get past the idea that nothing is original, as Gide suggested, nobody seems to listen. Since that case has been made many times before, and there are entire books dedicated to helping creatives Steal Like an Artist, there is no need to make it again. But I'm not convinced it is even the most compelling reason to rid ourselves of this notion that we should look negatively upon the things that feel a little bit like they've been done before.
Next time someone says, "I feel like I have seen something like this before," you can say, yes you have. And that might be exactly why it works. Whether you know it or not.
Contrary to what 10-year-old-me might tell you, the term walking contradiction was not coined by Green Day in their 1995 song of the same name. It's actually a century-old term to describe human beings' innate ability to think, want or even need two diametrically opposed things at the same exact time. Lyrics from the song do, however, shed some light on this concept when Billy Joe Armstrong sings: "We are all the victims of our own little catch-22." And we are all at any given moment a walking contradiction.
One example of this phenomenon is outlined in the communication theory of Relational Dialectics (bear with me here), which focuses on our struggle between contrary internal feelings referred to as dialectical tensions. The theory suggests there is a dynamic interplay of oppositions happening daily in our interpersonal relationships and our relationship with the broader community. These tensions come in many forms. For instance, we have the need for autonomy and independence from our partners, while at the same time we want to feel a deep connection and depend on them greatly (autonomy vs. connectedness). We crave stability and certainty in a relationship but can't help wanting a dash of uncertainty and openness to new possibilities (certainty vs. uncertainty). And when it comes to the broader community, we love the idea of being part of the group when it suits us, but at the same time we hate being lumped in with the masses and reserve the right to do our own thing (inclusion vs. seclusion).
You have probably felt the tug and pull of one, if not all, of these tensions at some point. If so, that's a good thing. It's normal. According to F. Scott Fitzgerald, "The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function." In his book—and he writes good books—it means you're a high-functioning human being. Congratulations. This balancing act of opposing ideas is how we operate through everyday life, and it extends to how we negotiate the familiar and unfamiliar, too.
Humans are at once both extremely neophilic—curious to discover new things—and neophobic—afraid of things that are too new. In his book Hit Makers: The Science of Popularity in an Age of Distraction, Derek Thompson writes about consumers' need for a balance of both. His suggestion—backed by research that dissected things that have "caught on" over the last few centuries, from famous operas to Abba—is that the key to making a hit is to provide the audience with some well-disguised familiarity. To create a fleeting moment of uncertainty before a click of understanding. A moment he refers to as the aesthetic aha.
Thompson's findings invert a common premise from which most creative advertising begins. It suggests that we should not set out on a quest to come up with something unquestionably original, but rather to start with the familiar. Not because it is impossible to create something wholly unseen (which in most cases it is), but because it will resonate much better with consumers. Yet doing so inevitably means that at some point in the process, any concept or idea will conjure the dreaded "feels a bit like something we've seen before." But if we are to believe Thompson's findings, that actually should be the aim. Creativity is not, as Google will tell you, "the use of original ideas"; it might actually be just the opposite. As Howard Luck Gossage, one of the ad titans of the Mad Men era, put it: "What we call creativity begins with the ability to recognize what is already there." And in recent years, no one has done a more masterful job recognizing what is already there and disguising familiarity than the Netflix show Stranger Things.
In 2016, an orphan with a shaved head, a box of Eggos and a few superhuman abilities broke out of the Hawkins National Laboratory and into our hearts. That summer, Stranger Things—and Eleven, the show's iconic protagonist—showed up in Netflix's suggested content block and took the world by storm (or should I say, turned it upside down). Set in the 1980s, the show follows a band of Dungeons & Dragons-playing kids and a disgruntled police chief as supernatural things threaten their sleepy Indiana town. Rife with nostalgia, great performances and an excellent balance of fun and fright, the show was a near instant hit. Stranger Things was Certified Fresh on Rotten Tomatoes with rave reviews from critics and fans alike, both rating the show in the high 90s. It would go on to become one of Netflix's most successful shows, single-handedly revive the career of Winona Ryder, make stars out of David Harbour and Millie Bobby Brown, and garner 38 Emmy nominations with seven wins.
Fortunately, we have the internet, which allows the ability to look at what critics were saying about the show when it was released. Peruse the Metacritic and Rotten Tomatoes critic reviews and you'll find quite a few gushing over the show. More interestingly, though, you'll find some remarking on how the show was "refreshingly unique" and how it "doesn't just tickle our collective nostalgia, it actually just feels straight up refreshing." They wrote this because, of course, when you watch the show for the first time (if you haven't yet, you should) it feels that way. It feels familiar but somehow at the same time refreshing, unique and different from everything else on TV at the moment.
Would it surprise you to find out that nearly every scene was inspired by the favorite sci-fi and horror films of the show's creators? Well they were, almost scene for scene. And the creators are more than happy to tell you about it.
In an enlightening but rather lengthy YouTube video, the show's writer/director duo, the Duffer brothers, walk viewers through "some" of the inspiration for their series. The reason the video is so long is because "some" is a long list of what feels like every classic film from the 1980s, including Alien, Altered States, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, E.T., Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Empire Strikes Back, Jaws, Gremlins, It, Pretty in Pink, Risky Business, Mad Max, The Exorcist, Stand By Me, The Thing, Escape From New York, Firestarter and The Terminator. One after another, they show the original scene side-by-side with a similar—sometimes almost identical—scene from Stranger Things. One by one, the pieces of the puzzle start to come together. As a complete show it's impossible to notice every reference. But as they break it down, it becomes clear that they hid the familiar in nearly every moment of the series. And not just in the show itself, they even did it in the pitch process.
Floating around the internet is the pitch deck that the Duffers used to sell the show's concept. It's designed to feel like the reader just picked up a Stephen King book straight out of the '80s. From the eerie cover with a price in the corner ($3.95 in case you were wondering) to the way it is organized in chapters, all the way down to the creases and browning of the digital pages, it embraces the aesthetic of a well-read, aged novel. I couldn't help but picture the rotating dog-eared sci-fi novels on my dad's night stand, which came as an instant injection of nostalgia. Read through the pitch and you might feel the same. Every inch of it feels like something you've seen before. And throughout the entire deck, the Duffer brothers continuously reference movies that you've definitely seen before. But when you're done, it feels like something new. They set the reader up with that feeling of the familiar, then masterfully weave their own story throughout with a few unique twists of their own. And they had a hit.
But what would have happened if the people who reviewed this work—the ones who ultimately decided if it got made—fell back on "it feels like it's been done before" and just dismissed it? After all, there were plenty of chances to do so. Because let's face it, a bunch of it has been done before, and the directors let you know it right off the bat. I like to think they asked themselves a different question. That is, has it been done this way before? More specifically, in this case, has it been done in this category (TV) or in this format (an 8-hour bingeable saga) or in this era for this generation, or with this unique twist? Has it been done by this talented and passionate young duo with a beautiful vision? The answer is no, it hasn't. Clearly the way it is done matters. Pitch a modern show that plays on the style of past TV shows like Bewitched and I Love Lucy, and it feels like it's been done before (because it was the first time). But add two mutant superheroes like Wanda and Vision, while they navigate marriage, kids, and a looming exential threat to an entire town, you get one of the highest rated pieces of Marvel content in the canon. Done before, but definitely not in that way.
Going from "Has it been done before?" to "Has it been done this way before?" is a subtle change. It begins with accepting that you are starting with something unoriginal, which is the hardest part. It feels icky. And it surely doesn't feel like the path to original work. But as Jean Luc Goddard said, "It is not where you take them from, it is where you take them to." And how far you can take something might actually benefit from starting with what is already there.
George Romero's 1968 film Night of the Living Dead is considered to be the inception of the modern-day zombie. The concept of a zombie, however, wasn't conceived by Romero (it's traced back to Haitian folklore), nor was it the first movie made about the subject (White Zombie came out 30 years earlier), and Romero's film is said to have been inspired by Richard Matheson's book I Am Legend, written in 1954 (which was also made into three different movies over a half century). Yet it's hard to argue that Romero's film didn't feel truly singular and original, and for many it was the introduction to these flesh-eating creatures.
When the undead arrived, the audience surely had questions: What are these things? How do they work? Why are they trying to kill us? How do we kill them? While Romero's film didn't explain everything, each subsequent film added to the zombie flick backlog provided more and more answers: They are your reanimated neighbors. It probably stems from some sort of uncontrollable virus. They want to eat your brain for sustenance. If they bite you, you are one of them. Aim for the brain to kill them. You know, regular zombie things.
Because these half-dead humanoids were so novel at the time, each movie had to set up this premise for the viewer. Doing so takes dialogue, effort, budget and most importantly time to explain. But what if the creators didn't have to spend creative energy or precious screen time explaining zombie etymology or the rules of engagement and more time coming up with new and original ways to tell the story? That is, as it happens, where we are today.
Thanks to the 275 zombie films, by IMDB's count, the concept of a zombie is now something familiar. The audience no longer needs to learn the basic rules. We pretty much get zombies (and unfortunately, sometimes they get us). So the creators don't need to waste any time setting it up. They use familiarity to their advantage, making assumptions about what the audience already knows, then finding deeper, weirder, unexpected and more fun ways to bring it to life. In the long run, this has led to more creative, original takes on zombies that somehow feel new over and over again. Zombies can be a part of an animated, family-friendly adventure like in ParaNorman (2012). They are now funny, dry and witty thanks to the British comedy Shaun of the Dead (2014). They fall in love thanks to Warm Bodies (2013). And they're used as heartbreaking social commentary like in Train to Busan (2016). Every one of them Certified Fresh on Rotten Tomatoes. All unique and original in their own right. Except for one thing—zombies aren't original.
I wrote most this chapter on New Year's Day morning of 2021. In reflecting on a year with a crippling pandemic, economic fallout and political tensions at what feels like an all-time high, I'd wager a guess this era will go down as one of the most stressful on record. I'll also note that I'm part of the millennial generation, the group according to the American Psychology Association that was previously labeled the most stressed-out generation. That is, until Gen Z came along and stripped us of the title. The trend appears to be moving in the wrong direction.
For better or worse, these two teeth-clenching generations make up a massive consumer base with the spending power to drive businesses over the next several decades. They are ones our advertising and brands will have to resonate with. And what do we know about people in times of stress? They turn to the familiar. In an excellent podcast from Freakonomics Radio called No Stupid Questions, Stephen Dubner and Angela Duckworth go over a body of research that says we watch, read and eat familiar things during crisis. It's how we cope with all the stress. They also discuss the times when people are more willing to take risks and seek new opportunities; it's referred to as the broaden-and-build theory. It usually tends to happen when the economy is booming, political unrest is at a low and people have a more positive sentiment about the future. For the time being, I think we better shelve broaden-and-build. In times like these, something that "feels like you've seen it before" might not be all that bad. It might even end up making your work more creative and original than you imagined.
Besides, we've seen what happens when someone creates something unseen (think: Van Gogh, La Trec or Surrat). Nobody likes it. And it isn't until a hundred years after their death that their work is truly understood and valued.
We don't have that kind of time.
This piece is excerpted from the author's forthcoming book, What Advertising Can Learn From Pretty Much Everything Else.